By Belinda Goldsmith
LONDON (Reuters) - British retailer Marks and Spencer apologized on Monday to customers angered after a Muslim checkout worker refused to sell champagne for religious reasons.
Thousands of customers threatened to boycott M&S, Britain's biggest clothing retailer that also sells food, after a till worker in a London store asked a customer to wait as she would not handle champagne and called for another staff member.
Following a storm of protests on social media, M&S apologized for the "confusion", saying it was not M&S's policy to allow checkout staff to refuse to serve customers buying items like alcohol and pork which are forbidden in Islam.
A spokeswoman said the company's policy for many years had been to try to accommodate staff of all religions by finding them roles where conflicts would not arise.
"On this occasion this person's preferences were not taken into account and she ended up on the tills, which was a mistake," the spokeswoman said. "We would like to apologize for any resulting confusion and reassure our customers that this was an isolated incident."
Despite the apology, angry customers vented on M&S's Facebook page, some calling on people to boycott the retailer and questioning whether other religions would get such leeway.
"Will you allow staff with Christian belief to stop working Sundays," asked Richard Woodward.
"Do Hindu or Sikh staff complain they can't serve beef and have you given Jewish staff the right not to sell pig meat?? ....you wont get me shopping there anymore and I hope other people feel likewise," said John Mcglade.
The row followed as similar one involving British universities. Some were accused earlier this month of caving in to rising religious demands after issuing guidance approving separate seating for men and women at events if requested by an external religious speaker.
The universities were forced to withdraw the guidance after being blasted by students and Prime Minister David Cameron whose government is considering how to better integrate Britain's 2.7 million Muslims without restricting their right to freedom of religious expression.
Different approaches are taken by Britain's four major supermarket owners over whether staff should be excused from certain jobs due to their religion.
Sainsbury's said staff on tills or restocking would be asked to handle alcohol and meat although it worked with "individuals to ensure we are inclusive and fair" while Wal-Mart Store Inc's Asda had one policy for all.
Morrison said it respected staff's wishes not to handle certain products at any time of year while Tesco said it had no definitive policy but handled cases on merit.
The protests came at a potentially difficult time for M&S which last weekend cut prices by 30 percent in order to draw in reluctant Christmas shoppers.
Chief Executive Marc Bolland is under pressure to boost sales after nine straight quarters of declining underlying clothing sales, although the food business has traded well.
(Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)