Faith of Our Fathers?

Published November 21, 2011

A suburban Chicago school district may pay $75,000 to settle a religious discrimination lawsuit brought by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The suit involves a Muslim teacher, 29, employed by the district for nine months, who asked for three weeks unpaid leave near the end of the semester so she could make a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Federal law states employers must “reasonably accommodate” employees’ religious practices unless doing so would cause “undue hardship.” The U.S. Supreme Court has held this means accommodating the religious practice is required only if the burden is “minimal.”

The Berkley School District, serving an area with 5,000 residents, denied her request for the leave, saying she is the only teacher in a special math lab preparing students for state tests and polishing math skills, and her presence was needed at the end of the year. The teacher quit her job and complained to the Justice Department, which brought the suit.

Most commentators said the lawsuit was unlikely to succeed, including former attorney general Michael Mukasey and law professor Eugene Volokh, because the length of the leave was unprecedented. The longest leave previously approved by a court was 10 days.

Some called it “a political lawsuit to placate Muslims,” while the Justice Department said it protected “the religious liberty that our forefathers came to this country for.”

Source: Jerry Markon, “Justice Department sues on behalf of Muslim teacher, triggering debate,” Washington Post, March 22, 2011; Eugene Volokh, “$75,000 Settlement for Muslim Teacher Denied 19 Days’ Unpaid Leave for Hajj (Pilgrimage to Mecca),” October 14, 2011