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.