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Should A Muslim Teacher Be Allowed Extensive Leave For a Trip To Mecca?

Should A Muslim Teacher Be Allowed Extensive Leave For a Trip To Mecca?

A math lab teacher in her second year of teaching at a suburban Chicago school asked for three weeks off near the end of the first semester to take a pilgrimage to Mecca.  Her school, citing critical need for teachers near finals time, refused her request.  Rather than miss the hajj, Safoorah Khan resigned.  Now, a lawsuit claiming the school infringed on her religious rights is being pursued by the Justice Department on her behalf.

Who is in the right?

Via The Washington Post:

The lawsuit, filed in December, may well test the boundaries of how far employers must go to accommodate workers’ religious practices — a key issue as the nation grows more multicultural and the Muslim population increases. But it is also raising legal questions. Experts say the government might have difficulty prevailing because the 19-day leave Khan requested goes beyond what courts have considered.

“It sounds like a very dubious judgment and a real legal reach,” said Michael B. Mukasey, who was attorney general in the George W. Bush administration. “The upper reaches of the Justice Department should be calling people to account for this.”

His successors in the Obama administration counter that they are upholding a sacred principle: the right of every American to be free of religious bias in the workplace. “This was a profoundly personal request by a person of faith,” said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights, who compared the case to protecting “the religious liberty that our forefathers came to this country for.”

The Obama administration has gone to great lengths to maintain good relations with Muslims — while endorsing tough anti-terrorism tactics. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has called protecting the civil rights of Muslims a “top priority,” and his department has filed other legal actions on behalf of Muslims, including a corrections officer in New Jersey not allowed to wear a head scarf at work.

Perez denied any political motive in the Berkeley lawsuit, saying it was pursued in part to fight “a real head wind of intolerance against Muslim communities.” People in the rapidly growing Muslim community in Chicago’s western suburbs praised the Justice Department’s involvement.

There are a few questions that will likely be the key deciders in this case.  Khan’s lawyers state that she was asking for unpaid leave, and that there were substitute teachers that would have been available for those three weeks in December.  School officials, however, are calling Kahn’s request “unreasonable” and that she would create “undue hardship” for the district.  Other legal analysts offer that in the past courts have approved 10 day leaves for religious reasons, but never anything as extensive as Kahn’s.

Also unanswered in the article, but likely a key point for deciding the case, is the amount of notice that Khan supplied her employers.  A pilgrimage to Mecca tends not to be a spur of the moment decision, and determining how much time the school district had to look for a substitute would have a significant bearing on the amount of hardship her absence would cause.

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By Abdelrhman 1990 (عمل شخصي) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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332 comments

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12:59AM PDT on Jun 7, 2011

the teacher is responsible to complete the school year. She should be given no special treatment. She chose to quit her job rather than fulfill the duties of that job.

3:48PM PDT on Apr 21, 2011

the school needed her for the finals and she just left them short handed the schools top and number one priority is the education of its students not their teachers' religious faiths

3:23PM PDT on Mar 31, 2011

When I was in college, our required world culture class included a section on Arab and Muslim culture. While the hajj is an important event, it is not mandatory every year. There are other options, such as going at a different time of year or other years. It was not a "requirement" of the teacher's religion that she go this particular year.

The biggest problem with the request for time off in my eyes is the timing of it. I don't know of any jobs that would give a second-year employee nineteen days off without VERY good reason. If we were talking about a twenty year employee I'd be much more likely to side with her. As a substitute teacher myself, I know that long term substitutes are avaliable if given enough notice, including substitutes with strengths in math who would be able to help students during finals.

This lawsuit may well end up doing more harm than good, calling attention to what would otherwise be dismissed by most people as frivolous. Extremists may well use this as an excuse to attack us, verbally or otherwise, and employers may end up more hesitant to hire Muslim employees.

10:18AM PDT on Mar 30, 2011

Several people have said that any substitute could have taken her place. This is not true. She wanted 3 weeks off during FINAL EXAMS for Pete's sake!!!! Teachers don't get personal time off during finals except for emergencies. In the case of childbirth, the school knows when the teacher will be absent for maternity leave & hires a qualified teacher to replace that person for the months they will be out. A substitute just before and during finals is not fair to the students. The sub doesn't know the students or what extra help they need. The sub hasn't been with the students all semester and isn't qualified to give them grades for the entire semester.

I don't care what religion this girl is. Teachers cannot just take 3 weeks off for personal reasons at a critical time of the school year.

3:16PM PDT on Mar 29, 2011

As an educator, you have a responsibility to your students--unless you are incapacitated. Ms. Khan's unreasonable request and lawsuit will cause other employers to hestitate hiring a Muslim teacher in the future. It appears that she had already planned to take off but kept it from her employers because she knew she wouldn't be hired; then she asked for the leave knowing it would be denied so that she could sue and make a political statement.

Eric Holder should remember that protecting the civil rights of Muslims should not be a "top priority" of his office. His duty is to Americans regardless of religion.

9:37AM PDT on Mar 29, 2011

This is so a waste of time.

Don't take a job where you know you cannot perform your duties. This woman knew this was going to happen. Can you sit down and discuss this issue with your employer before you are hired?
Oh wait probably not because they can't discriminate...

this kind of situation really makes me angry. And ferments the dislike of muslims. fair or not ...

Seriously ... you are in the US and Chicago...be happy and thankful you HAVE a job. go next year. STFU or go back from wence you came.

10:30PM PDT on Mar 27, 2011

This is a 3-day-old comment, but Wendy, you need to read the article. The teacher was NOT "fired", but resigned when the request for 19 days leave was denied. She also did not ask in August. Read the article! She asked at the end of the first SEMESTER, which means sometime in December, if they still have two semesters.

9:09PM PDT on Mar 27, 2011

The legal system is designed for good and just, it should be abused for any convenience or money making opportunity or waste the public resource to know their stories. I don't believe this teacher is reasonable citizen when dealing with her employer. Her religion is just an excuse. There are many self-defined religions in this country. USA is not designed to fit all.

4:39PM PDT on Mar 27, 2011

What's the policy for all the other teachers in that school ? That's what it should be for this lady. Can you see an American teacher getting special treatment teaching in their country?

3:56PM PDT on Mar 27, 2011

@Lika S
"Are you willing to miss Christmas with your family for work?"

I HAVE missed Thanksgiving, Easter, and Christmas with my family for work. Not just at one job, but at several jobs I held. If you need the job, then suck it up. If you don't, do what this teacher did and resign. That does NOT entitle you to sue. You knew when you took the job what the policies were.

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