A group of Muslim women suing a Laguna Beach restaurant alleging they were kicked out because of their religion said they were shocked at being expelled from the eatery and felt they were treated like criminals.
"I felt embarrassed, outraged and shocked by the discrimination my friends and I were subjected to," one of the women, Sara Farsakh, said. "We committed no crime, we violated no policy. Our only offense to Urth Caffe was that we are a group of Muslim women that stood out -- visibly stood out -- tarnishing their image."
Urth Caffe officials have denied any wrongdoing or discriminatory actions, saying the women were asked to leave because they violated a 45-minute seating policy when other customers are waiting for tables. The restaurant owners appealed to its customers to withhold judgment on the women's assertions "until all of the evidence in this case comes to light."
The seven women, six of whom were wearing the hijab, a traditional head dress for Muslim women, contend they went to the restaurant the evening of April 22 when it was not busy and more than 20 tables were unoccupied.
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They said their meals were brought to them on a "staggered basis" between 7:20 p.m. and 8:15 p.m. At 8:15 p.m., they claim, a restaurant manager told them they had to leave as they were violating the 45-minute limit when there were no tables available.
When the women said they had either not received the meal they ordered or finished ones that had been served, they were still told to leave, they allege. One of their attorneys, Mohammad Tajsar, said the manager who asked them to leave within in 10 minutes laughed off their protests.
Police were eventually called to kick them out, the women said, adding that other diners, who were white and had been in the restaurant longer, were not asked to leave. Farsakh walked through the restaurant taking a cell phone video, showing a series of empty tables. The video was posted online and has had hundreds of thousands of views.
"It felt surreal to be escorted out by Laguna Beach police officers ...," another of the women, Soondus Ahmed, said. "We were escorted out and made to feel like criminals."
Ahmed said she was suing the restaurant because "I do not want another individual to be subjected to discrimination. ... I am doing this for all women who wear the hijab."
The lawsuit was filed Monday.
Following the release of Farsakh's video last month, Urth Caffe posted a statement on its Facebook denying claims of prejudice.
"Urth Caffe categorically denies any and all claims of racial or religious discrimination against Sara Farsakh. While a full investigation is still on-going, it appears that Ms. Farsakh and her friends violated company policies and that the staff at Urth Caffe in Laguna properly and justifiably applied company procedures," according to the company.
"Urth Caffe neither condones nor tolerates discrimination of any kind. Urth Caffe workforces, multicultural customer base and in fact, Urth's entire corporate culture, are all reliable indicators that Urth appreciates, encourages and lauds peace and diversity.
"Urth Caffe sincerely hopes that its customers will withhold judgment until all of the evidence in this case comes to light. Once the evidence is fully revealed, Urth believes that everyone will be satisfied that Urth Caffe continues to serve all of its guests with the same respect and admiration."
The restaurant's owner, Shallom Berkman, said last week that his wife is Muslim, and he strongly denied any discrimination. He said the restaurant enforces the 45-minute seating limit -- especially on the patio -- to keep things "fair'" for all patrons.
Tajsar said, however, the treatment of the women "is a throwback to the days of 'whites only' signs and colored water fountains, with Muslims now being the convenient targets of discrimination," said Tajsar. "Urth Caffe's attempt to whitewash its upscale clientele by using its seating policy as a justification to expel those who outwardly appear Muslim is both immoral and illegal and should have no place in Orange County's diverse community," he added.
Tajsar alleged there were several racially charged incidents targeting Muslims around the cafe in recent weeks, prompting the restaurant's managers to "cleanse" the store of Muslims.
The attorney said tires have been slashed and the restaurant has been egged by bigots. Citing the time-limit policy was merely a "pretext" to kick the women out without admitting religious bias, Tajsar argued. The lawsuit does not cite a specific dollar figure for compensatory or punitive damages, but Tajsar estimated it could reach "the millions."
"We want to hold Urth management accountable so this doesn't happen again,'' Tajsar said. The Council on American-Islamic Relations' Greater Los Angeles Office issued a statement last week voicing concern about the women's treatment.
Two other non-Muslim women also told Farsakh they had been there before the group of women arrived and were not given the boot. Another group of women in the restaurant also said they had been there for about four hours, according to CAIR.