A bizarre decision to intervene in a local school case has demonstrated yet again just how politicized the U.S. Department of Justice has become. According to the Washington Post, DoJ is suing a small town school board in Illinois because it didn’t allow a first-year teacher three weeks off to go on the Muslim hajj to Mecca:
Safoorah Khan had taught middle school math for only nine months in this tiny Chicago suburb when she made an unusual request. She wanted three weeks off for a pilgrimage to Mecca.
The school district, faced with losing its only math lab instructor during the critical end-of-semester marking period, said no. Khan, a devout Muslim, resigned and made the trip anyway.
Justice Department lawyers examined the same set of facts and reached a different conclusion: that the school district’s decision amounted to outright discrimination against Khan. They filed an unusual lawsuit, accusing the district of violating her civil rights by forcing her to choose between her job and her faith.
It is true that employers are generally required to accommodate employees religious belief and practice. For instance, employers can’t tell employees that they can’t wear a cross necklace or a yarmulke. We’ve all seen bank tellers or store clerks in Muslim head scarves. But this goes way beyond that.
For one thing, there is no requirement that Muslims go on the hajj during any particular year of their life, but rather once during a lifetime. There is no reason why this teacher couldn’t have waited a few years until she had enough accumulated personal time to make the trip. For another, the Muslim calendar (which is lunar rather than solar) means that the time of year that the hajj takes places changes from year to year. She could simply have waited until it was during the summer. Finally, what’s with the three weeks? The hajj only lasts four days. How was she planning to get to Saudi Arabia? On the back of a camel?
But that’s not good enough for the DoJ:
“This was a profoundly personal request by a person of faith,” said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights, who compared the case to protecting “the religious liberty that our forefathers came to this country for.”
That’s a nice sentiment, but it doesn’t really apply here, because in Khan’s case, there is no religious obligation to undertake her pilgrimage when she wanted to do so–that was a purely personal preference. It’s as if a Christian teacher, based solely on her personal interpretation of the faith rather than anything publicly recognizable, demanded that she be given leave for the whole of Lent to engage in prayer and meditation. What do you think the chances are that Justice would take on that religious freedom case?
And that’s the real point here. Khan was asking for something–three weeks off in the middle of the school year, when she wasn’t sick, wasn’t having a baby, and didn’t have the personal leave time accumulated–that no one else would have been granted, for any reason. For the Justice Department to claim that this is just a case of defending someone religious freedom is disingenuous at best, but the Post explains what’s really going on here:
The Obama administration has gone to great lengths to maintain good relations with Muslims — while endorsing tough anti-terrorism tactics. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has called protecting the civil rights of Muslims a “top priority,” and his department has filed other legal actions on behalf of Muslims, including a corrections officer in New Jersey not allowed to wear a head scarf at work.
Perez denied any political motive in the Berkeley lawsuit, saying it was pursued in part to fight “a real head wind of intolerance against Muslim communities.”
In fact, while there have been some well-reported incidents and a handful of political controversies like the Ground Zero mosque, there has not been a “real head wind of intolerance against Muslim communities.” Most Americans, and virtually all politicians, have gone out of their way since 9/11 to ensure that American Muslims are not mistreated or subject to stereotyping or discrimination. According to the most recently available FBI statistics, 66% of hate crimes in 2008 were committed against Jews, only 7.7% against Muslims.
What there has been, however, is an assiduous political effort on the part of the administration to court Muslims. That’s fine, as long as it isn’t at the expense of equal justice for all Americans, regardless of their religion. In the case of this suit, that’s exactly what’s going on.