The Teacher’s Pilgrimage


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.

18 thoughts on “The Teacher’s Pilgrimage

  1. I agree with your conclusion, especially vis-a-vis the Justice Department, but I have one caveat and one question.

    It doesn’t strike me as a reasonable argument against Ms. Khan’s position that she “decided to agree” with those who assert that a hajj must be undertaken as soon as financially possible. That seems to me to be a matter of religious conviction rather than a decision arrived at by rational means. (N.B., by “rational” I mean simply left-brain activity; I am not suggesting that religious belief is inherently irrational.) I don’t think too many people actually choose a denomination except in practical terms–there’s no Methodist Church in my new town, so I’ll go to the Congregational Church, or whatever. Normally, people become members of whatever religion, and indeed whatever denomination of that religion, their parents believed. It may be, in other words, that there is no sense of opportunism in Ms. Khan’s argument.

    Secondly, the pragmatic argument that December is a really bad time for a teacher to take time off certainly resonates. But what of, say, the teacher who takes maternity leave then… for as long as Ms. Khan sought to be absent. After all, pregnancies can be planned, too.

    • I’d say that a pregnancy is sui generis, and becomes a fait accompli. I think job applicants who are pregnant but who don’t inform their employers until after they are hired and vested in all benefits are despicable—one did that to me—but the law allows it. (It’s still wrong, and would never trust an employee who pulled that crap.) My understanding of the timing of the hajj is that it isn’t a sect thing but a matter of interpreting the tenets of the faith. If there are multiple, equally legitimate opinions among Islamic scholars about how rigid the timing requirements are, and one interpretation accommodates the needs of the employer more than the others (and there is no Islamic penalty to picking one or the other), the Muslim employee should make the more considerate choice.

      • I’m with Rick. This is an excellent post, except for your wishywashy understanding of religion.

        In religion, whatever one believes is what is. There are as many interpretations of the bible as their are people. Saying one interpretation should be chosen over another doesn’t fly. There are many equally legitamate opinions among Christian scholars about the appropriateness of eating meat on fridays. That doesn’t mean that you can forcefeed a Christian beef tomorrow.

        • Wishy-washy!

          I don’t know enough about Islam to be sure, but my sense is that “the rule” is what is wishy-washy, and that she had more flexibility than she was willing to exhibit.

          The Pope has said that eating no meat on Friday was no longer required. If an anti-Pope Catholic told me he wouldn’t come to my Friday barbecue because he still felt he couldn’t eat meat, I’d conclude there were other reasons involved—like he hated by pulled portk.

          • What if this friend wasn’t Catholic, but instead was part of a protestant sect that doesn’t eat meat?

            Are you saying that my Grandmother’s refusal to eat meat on Fridays is because of something unrelated to eating meat on Fridays? Or is it because that’s what she was told for 50 years, so that’s what she believes is the Word of God?

            That’s the exact problem with refuting religion and religious belief. There is no authority, no single set of rules, even for Catholocism. I come from 2 large families of Catholics (Irish Catholic and Italian Catholic), and the religious debates are pretty incredible.

            To religion, and U.S. law regarding religion, if you believe it (and can demonstrate such), then it is, no matter what any authorities say.

  2. I’m not sure the lawsuit here is a bad thing. If the civil rights laws state that employers must make reasonable accommodations for their employees’ religious beliefs unless this causes undue hardship, it would be nice to have a court tell us what constitutes reasonable accommodations and what is undue hardship. If ten days off for reasons of religious observance are reasonable, are twenty? If ten days are unreasonable, are five days? If twenty days are reasonable, would it be reasonable for an employee to take a years’ sabbatical to study the sacred scrolls of Pastafarianism? Tell us, courts, we want to know.

    It is harder to say whether the teacher’s actions were ethical. It is difficult to balance and reconcile religious duties with other, more secular duties (I use duty not in the sense of legal duties but in the sense of moral duties). Is a Jehovah’s Witness unethical because he refuses to donate blood to help out his fellow human beings? Is a devout Catholic pharmacist unethical if he or she refuses to provide contraceptives to a customer (I know you talked about this before, but I got the feeling that the unethical action of the pharmacist was choosing to become a pharmacist in the first place, not trying to stick to his or her religious beliefs).

    In this case, I agree that, if Ms. Khan knew that she would be undertaking the hajj in the near future, it was probably unethical for her to begin teaching at that time. On the other hand, her religious views may have changed since she began teaching, leading her to believe that she had a new religious duty (unlikely over nine months, but I do not know the minds of others). If the law states that she is entitled to reasonable accommodation, is she ethically obliged to lose her job in order to fulfill her religious obligations?

  3. You guys (using the term as a generic) are absolutely hilarious.

    Khan DID take the job. She DID know the school schedule before she hired on. She DID sign a contract that presumably included the calendar for the school year. And suddenly, with that foreknowledge, she needs time now for her trip to Mecca? Why didn’t she take the pilgrimage BEFORE she took a job that has an important time schedule to which she should adhere as a good employee?

    Suppose I am a devout Roman Catholic and decide I must observe every holy day of obligation. By some Catholic standards, I’d be away from my job about 40% of the time. And would I deserve the same accommodation as Khan?

    Please. This isn’t religious. It’s political. The DOJ, Eric Holder,, have an almost unblemished record for picking the WRONG issues and WRONG cases. All for political reasons. (E.g., their position on the “new” Black Panthers at polling places.) Come on. It’s all just political posturing.

    And maybe a couple of you are right: let her go to Court and, one hopes, lose. But with everything that’s happening with teachers’ unions I don’t see it happening. Ever wonder why there is so little respect for the public school system in this country? It’s this kind of nonsense — and it really is a small issue — that takes center stage all the time. What about the dismal, pathetic achievement of our own students? Teachers’ unions want more money, more money, more money, more money, automatic raises, better benefits than anyone in the private sector receives, and then scream bloody murder if a school board actually wants to evaluate their effectiveness as teachers. (The New York City “warehousing” issue again, because of teachers’ unions.)

    In my small city alone (mostly upper middle class), with billions of dollars spent on palatial physical plants, the schools still rank in the bottom 5% (!) on state achievement tests. That’s why a full 40% of school age children in my jurisdiction either go to private school or are home schooled. (My son, during his short-lived foray in a gorgeous public school here, was horrified that he felt compelled to correct his teachers’ grammar, and that between 1/3 and 1/2 of each class period was devoted to just getting the kids to sit in their seats! Ah, and these are the people defended so vigorously by their unions.)

    Religious beliefs, indeed. And if the “excellent substitute teachers” are so very excellent, hire them full time instead and let the Khans of the school system go to Mecca on their own time.

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