DOJ supports Muslim teacher’s lawsuit for denial of hajj pilgrimage to Mecca

The federal government sued a suburban Chicago school district Monday for denying a Muslim middle school teacher unpaid leave to make a pilgrimage to Mecca that is a central part of her religion.

In a civil rights case, the department said the school district in Berkeley, Ill., denied the request of Safoorah Khan on grounds that her requested leave was unrelated to her professional duties and was not set forth in the contract between the school district and the teachers union. In doing so the school district violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by failing to reasonably accommodate her religious practices, the government said.

Khan wanted to perform the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia which every adult Muslim is supposed to make at least once in a lifetime if they are physically and financially able to. Millions go each year.

Khan started as a middle school teacher for Berkeley School District 87 — about 15 miles west of Chicago — in 2007. In 2008, she asked for almost three weeks of unpaid leave to perform the Hajj. After the district twice denied her request, Khan wrote the board that “based on her religious beliefs, she could not justify delaying performing hajj,” and resigned shortly thereafter, according to the lawsuit filed in federal court in Chicago.

Berkeley School District compelled Khan to choose between her job and her religious beliefs, the lawsuit said.

The government asked the court to order the school district to adopt policies that reasonably accommodate its employees’ religious practices and beliefs, and to reinstate Khan with back pay and also pay her compensatory damages.

In November 2008, Khan filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which found reasonable cause that discrimination had occurred and forwarded the matter to the Justice Department. The case is the first brought by department in a project to ensure vigorous enforcement of the 1964 act against state and local governments by improving cooperation between the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the department’s civil rights division.

HERE is the DOJ Press Release:
Justice Department Files Religious Discrimination Lawsuit Against Berkeley School District in Illinois
WASHINGTON — The Justice Department today announced it has filed a lawsuit against Berkeley School District, Berkeley, Ill., alleging that the school district violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by failing to reasonably accommodate the religious practices of Safoorah Khan, a Muslim teacher at McArthur Middle School.

The government’s complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in Chicago, alleges that Ms. Khan requested an unpaid leave of absence in December 2008 to perform Hajj, a pilgrimage required by her religion. According to the complaint, Berkeley School District denied Ms. Khan’s request because the purpose of her leave was not related to her professional duties nor was it leave for any of the specific purposes set forth in the Professional Negotiations Agreement between the district and the teachers’ union. The United States further alleges that, because Berkeley School District denied her a religious accommodation, the district compelled Ms. Khan to choose between her job and her religious beliefs, and thus forced her discharge.

The lawsuit is based on a charge of discrimination filed by Ms. Khan with the Chicago District Office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). After investigating Ms. Khan’s charge, finding reasonable cause to believe that Berkeley School District had discriminated against Ms. Khan, and unsuccessfully attempting to conciliate the matter, the EEOC referred the charge to the Department of Justice. More information about the EEOC is available on its website at http://www.eeoc.gov.

In the lawsuit, the United States seeks an order requiring Berkeley School District to adopt a policy designed to reasonably accommodate the religious observances, practices and beliefs of employees and prospective employees. In addition, the United States seeks back pay, compensatory damages and reinstatement for Ms. Khan.

“Employees should not have to choose between their religious practice and their livelihood,” said Thomas Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “Federal law prohibits employers from treating employees and applicants less favorably because of their religion, and requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for the religious beliefs and practices of their employees.”

“The EEOC is committed to ensuring that individuals are protected from religious discrimination at work,” said Jacqueline A. Berrien, Chair of the EEOC. “We are pleased to foster this important collaboration with the Department of Justice to enforce the laws that ensure our workplaces are free of bias.”

This is the first lawsuit brought by the Department of Justice as a result of a pilot project designed to ensure vigorous enforcement of Title VII against state and local governmental employers by enhancing cooperation between the EEOC and the Civil Rights Division.

The filing of the lawsuit reflects the Civil Right’s Divisions ongoing commitment to actively enforce federal employment discrimination laws. Additional information about the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice is available on its website at http://www.usdoj.gov/crt.

3 Responses to “DOJ supports Muslim teacher’s lawsuit for denial of hajj pilgrimage to Mecca”

  1. […] Eric Holder, Obama’s AG, Enters The Fray In a civil rights case, the department said the school district in Berkeley, Ill., denied the request of Safoorah Khan on grounds that her requested leave was unrelated to her professional duties and was not set forth in the contract between the school district and the teachers union. In doing so the school district violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by failing to reasonably accommodate her religious practices, the government said. (saynsumthn.wordpress.com/2010/12/15) […]

  2. Quick questions: Are trips to Mecca unavailable on Winter or Summer break? If so, why is there a need to accommodate in this case? Put another way, does the availability of large amounts of off time for said breaks more than reasonably accommodate any religious purpose Safoorah Khan might have in pursuing the hajj (for three weeks no less, which is also not a likely religious prescription)?

    Given that the answer to this later question is an obvious yes, it seems the DOJ seems to be construing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in a novel and disturbing way: That it requires accommodation to religion that is unreasonable, and in no way dictated by the strictures of the Muslim religion nor by common sense.

    How such stunningly, and obviously poor, judgement could be exercised, particularly in a deliberately chosen (part of a pilot program) and vetted is troubling. The real issue in the case is not a failure of the school district to respect Ms. Khan’s religious beliefs, but a failure of the DOJ to respect both the letter and the spirit of the Civil rights act that it is duty bound to enforce.

  3. Well, actually the Hajj is a specific period each year, though it is movable as it is based on a lunar calendar and not the Gregorian. However for 2008 it was in December.

    And from what I understand, if you want to participate, the vast majority buy into it with a package that is about 3 weeks.

    Sorry but it seems you are ignorant of the Hajj, so maybe you don’t want to tell the DOJ what to do.

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