Sunday, October 16, 2011

School or Mecca: To Hijj with it.

In an article by the Department of Justice a Board of Education within the Berkeley School District 87 in Illinois has consented to resolve a recent religious accommodations lawsuit filed last year. The case is centered on Safoorah Khan, a Muslin teacher in the middle school who sued after being denied an unpaid leave to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca, known as Hajj, which is required by her religion. Khan claims that when the district denied her request, she was being forced to choose between her religion and job, which lead to her discharge.

The school chose not to grant her request based on a policy that refuses to permit leave to non-tenured teachers based on religious practices if the request is not already specifically included within their leave policy. Although the policy does contain several religious practices that permit leave, there are several, like Hajj, which are not contained within the language of the policy and are required for specific religions. The school district was found guilty of religious discrimination and has agreed to pay Ms. Khan $75,000 for lost pay, damages, and her attorney fees. Thomas Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division claims “this case shows the consequences of an employer refusing to engage in any interactive process to understand and work with an employee to find an accommodation of the employee’s religious beliefs.” Along with the sum of money, the district is required to provide mandatory training on religious accommodation to all BOE members and several others who are involved with legislature within the region. This training is centered on teaching members how to look at religious accommodation requests on a case-by-case basis and make better decisions on requests submitted by employees.

I feel that Safoorah Khan’s rights were neglected when the school district refused her request to go on a religious pilgrimage. Not only did she submit proper paperwork to go on a trip to Mecca required by her religion, she did not ask for pay or any other special treatment. The BOE was wrong to deny her request, and has paid the price. The training ordered by the court will go a long way to making sure this does not happen again within the district. I think it is unfortunate that the case had to come to court and that the school was fined such a large sum of money, but they were very out of line by refusing to let her travel to her religious home. Although the school’s policy was not directly establishing any specific religion, it was preventing less mainstream religions that may not have been considered when specific accommodations were listed in the policy.

Do you think that the policy acted as a method of establishment even though it did not single out one religion above any others? What are your thoughts on the court ordered training for the district’s personnel? Do you foresee any benefits of it? Do you see any negative repercussions to this decision? This is an unfortunate situation where old legislature comes back to harm a district as less mainstream religions become more popular across the country. Hopefully this was not an active case of discrimination, but merely a necessary reality check for the district to update its legislature and realize the negative effects their policies could be having on people and their faiths.

6 comments:

Harry R. said...

I agree with David that the school board violated the free exercise rights of their employee by denying her leave to perform her hajj. She did not ask for payment during this leave and should be allowed similar religious rights as more mainstream religions. Her free exercise rights were violated when she was forced to stay in school or be fired, for the school did not accommodate her religious beliefs. I feel that this relates to the minority opinion in Braunfield v Brown where the state is forcing choice between religion and your economic standing.

Grant Z said...

I also agree that the school board was wrong to deny Ms. Khan her trip to Mecca. This pilgrimage is a cornerstone of Islam, and she obviously followed protocol in her request for unpaid leave in December. It is difficult to imagine what rationale the board of education cited in denying the request given its religious significance. What compelling interest could they have had that they thought would hold up in court?

Jack Ness said...

While I see the points presented by both the writer of this post and those who commented, I would like to bring up another interesting perspective. The Hajj and Ramadan are based off of a lunar calendar, which means that it is held on various dates, including the summer at least once a decade. The hajj only has to be done once in a lifetime if the person is physically and financially able to so. We all know that teachers have summers off, so couldn't this one just wait for a better time? I realize that I am playing devil's advocate here, but it is something to think about.

Sam S said...

I agree with David on this case. Khan’s right to the freely practice her religion was denied by the school board and the decision made by the court was the right one. But I do however see the argument that Jack brings up. Was her trip, while deeply religious, necessarily urgent enough that she could not have waited for another time to travel? Also, even though she asked for the time to do this she was essentially asking the school to keep her teaching position open so that when she came back she would be guaranteed her position was still there.

Andrew Lichtenauer said...

I agree with David here completely. The school board definitely violated Ms. Khan's right to her free exercise of religion. In my opinion, this story brings up a much larger issue inherent in U.S. law today. As citizens of the United States, we must understand that the U.S. Constitution was written over 200 years ago, and is always be susceptible to change. Just because U.S. law does not explicitly mention the hajj or other particular religious traditions, the Constitution is still a dynamic, "living document" that should be able to adapt our times. There is no question that Ms. Khan's rights were violated in this case - freedom of religion is a right that every American citizen should have, no matter what their faith, profession, gender, etc.

Elena T said...

I too agree. This is obviously a violation of free exercise. This teacher did the proper thing to ask for unpaid leave, it is not as if she was attempting to trick the school into giving her time off with pay. As part of her religion it is necessary, if she can, take the hajj to Mecca and I feel it is just as justified as when students cannot do homework on a Jewish or Christian holiday.