Does Religious Liberty Cover a Math Teacher's Three-Week Trip to Mecca?

>"You shall observe the complete rites of Hajj," the Koran instructs its Muslim followers. Islam wants all of the faithful to complete the Hajj, a pilgrimage to the religious center of Mecca, at least once in their lives if possible. But what if you're both Muslim and a math teacher? What if that pilgrimage means 19 days away from students at the end of the semester? In one Chicago suburb, a 29-year-old teacher did ask for three weeks off to visit Mecca, The Washington Post reports. The school refused, and the Department of Justice has sued on grounds of religious discrimination, opening a debate on the lawsuit's political undertones as well as what religious liberty truly means in today's workplace:

Federal law requires employers to "reasonably accommodate" religious practices unless doing so would impose such a hardship. The Supreme Court has interpreted the provision narrowly, saying accommodations should be granted only if they impose a minimal burden on employers.

Hans von Spakovsky, a Justice Department civil rights official in the Bush administration, said, "No jury anywhere would think that a teacher leaving for three weeks during a crucial time at the end of a semester is reasonable."

"This is a political lawsuit to placate Muslims," he said.

Perez said the district committed "a very serious" violation by "summarily" rejecting Khan's leave. He added that Bush officials critical of the department's lawsuit had "amnesia" because they filed similar lawsuits. "I'm perplexed as to why suddenly, in the context of protecting Muslims," there is opposition from officials in the former administration, he said.

Eugene Volokh, an expert on religions and the law at the UCLA law school, said he does not know of any cases involving a 19-day leave, though many courts have said employees can take off one weekend day on the Sabbath in some circumstances. "That's a 52-day-a-year leave, just not all at once," he said.

A number of courts have also upheld religious-based leaves of up to 10 days.
But Khan's 19 consecutive days "cuts against her, makes it more of a hardship for the employer" said Volokh. He added, "I don't want to suggest that this is an easy case for the Justice Department" to win.

Read the full story at The Washington Post.

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John Hendel is a writer based in Washington, DC, and a former producer at The Atlantic.

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