In August 2008, nine months after starting her job as a middle school math teacher in Berkeley, Ill., Safoorah Khan asked her school to give her three weeks off in December for a pilgrimage to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia. Though a Muslim is supposed to make the pilgrimage, called a hajj, once in a lifetime and Khan was under 30, she insisted that this was the time for her to go, and believed that the school’s refusal—it argued that having to replace her for that length of time in the middle of the school year was unfair to the students and a burden on the school’s budget—was discriminatory. She quit, made her pilgrimage, and thus infused with the wisdom of Allah is suing the pants off of her former employers. Her lawsuit alleges that by refusing to make a “reasonable accommodation” to her request, it was discriminating against her on the basis of her religion.
Meanwhile, Eric Holder’s Justice Department is joining the case on her side.
The nation’s civil rights laws require that employers make “reasonable accommodations” for workers’ religious beliefs and practices unless they create an “undue hardship.” It is hard to see how this request—another demand disguised as a request, actually (Hello, Enzo!)—can be called reasonable:
• Khan did not inform the school that this was her plan when she accepted the job, though she already knew when she wanted the trip to occur.
• As a teacher, she already gets three months a year as vacation, and long absences for reasons other than illnesses or personal crises are extremely unusual. Ten day absences for religious reasons have sometimes been ruled reasonable; Khan’s requested leave was 50% longer.
• The period between Christmas and Thanksgiving that she requested to take off was the end of the semester, an especially critical time.
• Khan, at 29, was certainly young enough to be able to have other opportunities to meet Islam’s requirement of the one-in-a-lifetime journey when it would not throw a monkey wrench into the school year.
• Though Muslims are supposed to make the pilgrimage to Mecca during an eight-day period that falls at a different time each year, there is a dispute among Muslin scholars whether a Muslim is required to take the hajj as soon as the trip is financially feasible. Khan decided to agree with those who believed that she did. She didn’t have to.
In a risible op-ed in USA Today, Khan’s lawyer pooh-poohed the school’s belief that Khan’s students’ education would be disrupted, citing the “excellent substitute teachers” who would take her place. Unless the attorney is telling us that her client is a dud, this is an argument that contradicts most students’ actual experiences with substitute teachers. I was educated in a terrific school district, and not one experience with a substitute teacher was anything but treading water at best, and watching a young tyro founder at worst. Even “excellent substitute teachers,” cannot compensate for the loss of the missing teacher’s knowledge of the class, its individual students’ needs, and teaching approach.
In short, Kahn’s request wasn’t reasonable; it was irresponsible and unfair. So why is the Justice Department intervening on her behalf?
Well, our Justice Department has been wrong before—especially THIS Justice Department. But is it making this decision for reasons of politics rather than law or fairness, purposefully taking the side of a Muslim in a high-profile case at a time when the Muslim-American community is in the center of controversy, and actively discriminated against in some regions? Thomas Perez, a high-ranking DOJ official, says that the Department’s decision was to some extent motivated by “a real head wind of intolerance against Muslim communities.”
It would not be unethical or inappropriate for that perception to play a part in the decision by DOJ to intervene on Khan’s behalf, if this were a close call. But it isn’t a close call. It’s a terrible precedent in the making, and one that could easily have the perverse effect of making schools more wary of hiring Muslim teachers who will know that they can demand a three week leave that the school dare not refuse.
The ethical principle should be clear and simple: when religious beliefs and practices materially interfere with one’s ability to do one’s job, either the religious practices must yield, or the practitioner should find a line of work in which those practices are not so burdensome.