Illinois school district sued for religious discrimination

December 14, 2010

By Odette Yousef

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Federal prosecutors have filed a complaint against Berkeley School District 87, claiming it violated the Civil Rights Act when it denied a Muslim teacher time off for an Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. Title VII of the act prohibits employment discrimination based on religion, among other things. The suit asserts that the district failed to provide Safoorah Khan “reasonable accommodation of her religious observance, practice, and/or belief.”
 
Khan was a Math Lab teacher at McArthur Middle School, in west-suburban Berkeley, IL. Less than a year after starting that job in 2007, Khan asked for nearly three weeks of unpaid leave in 2008 to perform hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to the holy city in Saudi Arabia. Hajj is considered a religious duty that able-bodied and financially-capable Muslims must fulfill at least once. When the district rejected Khan’s request, Khan resigned and filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC attempted to mediate a resolution with the district, but could not. It referred the case to the Department of Justice.
 
In the complaint the DOJ asserts that Khan was forced to choose between work and her religion. The department wants to see the school district reinstate Khan with backpay. It also wants the school district to change its policies to accommodate such religious requests.
 
The school board did not immediately return calls.

The DOJ is touting this lawsuit as the first under a new pilot project where the department works closely with the EEOC to “ensure vigorous enforcement of Title VII against state and local governmental employers…” But it’s not the first time the DOJ has brought a lawsuit against such employers for alleged religious discrimination.

In an email, DOJ spokesperson Xochitl Hinojosa said, “The Employment Litigation Section has brought several other lawsuits alleging religious discrimination under Title VII on behalf of employees of other religions, including Christian, Jewish and Muslim employees.” Many of them, wrote Hinojosa, resulted in consent decrees. 

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