Irvine-based LA Fitness is being sued in an Ohio federal court by a member who claims employees forced him to stop praying when he was done exercising.
Mohamed Fall, a 28-year-old, Senegal-born Muslim and former Ohio Christian University basketball player and Ohio Collegiate Athletic Conference Player of the Year, states in his complaint that he regularly works out at the LA Fitness in the Oakley neighborhood of Cincinnati.
He further states that he also capped his workouts by retreating "to an empty, obscure corner of the men's locker room, next to an empty coat rack," where he would face the wall and conduct Salat, or prayer, "quietly to himself for approximately 5-10 minutes."
This had not been a problem until Jan. 29, when he claims his prayer was interrupted by three male LA Fitness employees who "surrounded him" in the "otherwise unoccupied locker room."
"They demanded that he immediately stop praying and ordered that he no longer pray at LA Fitness," reads the complaint. "Mr. Fall was confused and concerned, since he had been praying after his workouts at LA Fitness since 2013 and no one had ever once indicated that his behavior was a problem."
His suit contends the three men informed him that someone from LA Fitness's corporate office had been to that gym that day, became aware of Fall's prayer ritual, didn't like it and decided the member "would no longer be able to pray anywhere at the gym."
Fall claims he always stood facing a wall in his gym clothing to pray, that he made no noise and that he used no mats or wore no religious clothing. He says friends and acquaintances who belong to the gym knew about and had no problems with his prayer time. He further alleges he has seen others at that LA Fitness engaged in religious prayer and related activities, such as making the sign of the cross, without being told to stop.
Saying he has followed the order from LA Fitness employees, Fall nonetheless believes he was singled out because he is a Muslim--and claims to have suffered "serious anxiety, stress and emotional distress" due to the encounter. His suit seeks a temporary restraining order and preliminary and permanent injunction allowing him to practice his Islamic beliefs at LA Fitness and forbidding the company from stopping his prayers.
Besides the LA Fitness corporation in Irvine, the suit names the Cincinnati facility and--as John Does--the employees who surrounded Fall.
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LA Fitness was invited to comment on the suit for this post, which will be updated should such a statement come.
Chris Link, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Ohio, has commented on the suit, telling the Los Angeles Time that Fall being on private property does not preempt his right to religious expression. But to win the suit, he may have to prove he was targeted because of his faith, Link added.
"The proof might be that, in the absence of a policy, they picked him to remove," she reportedly said. "Not a Catholic. Not a Presbyterian. If I were standing in line at Target and put my hands together and started muttering the Our Father, I don't think they could throw me out. I find LA Fitness' behavior to be pretty perplexing."