Religion and Workers' Rights: What's "Reasonable"?

by Vault Careers | December 17, 2010

  • My Vault

Another day, another work-related lawsuit that has the potential to ignite public sentiment around the country: on Monday, the Justice Department announced that it had filed a lawsuit against an Illinois School District for refusing to accommodate a Muslim teacher's request to go a religious pilgrimage.

The grounds for the suit: the DOJ believes the school district violated Title VII of the Civil Rights act by refusing to grant three weeks of unpaid leave to Safoorah Khan, a Muslim teacher, so she could complete the Hajj—a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca.

According to the Justice Department, Khan was denied leave on the grounds that "the purpose of her leave was not related to her professional duties nor was it leave for any of the specific purposes set forth in the Professional Negotiations Agreement between the district and the teachers’ union."

Because Khan was then placed in a position where she felt she had to quit her job in order to accommodate her religious beliefs, the DOJ further alleges that the school district "thus forced her discharge."

The case is undoubtedly a touchy one, and many aspects of it have been covered in the blogosphere. Shockingly, some have even been relevant to the central issue in the case—the concept of what constitutes "reasonable accommodation" of an employee's beliefs.

There's a nice explanation of "reasonable accommodation" from noted law blogger Eugene Volokh:

"The federal government is of course enforcing American law here — the 1972 amendments to Title VII of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964. With these amendments, Congress expressly required employers to give religious employees special exemptions from generally applicable job requirements, if (a) the requirements interfere with an employee’s sincerely felt religious obligations and (b) such an exemption doesn’t impose 'undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.' 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(j); TWA v. Hardison (1977). "

The case is likely to hinge on part b of that explanation: whether granting three weeks' leave during the school year would have imposed "undue hardship" on the school district--and the ins and outs of that argument are best left to those with full inside knowledge of the case and the workings of the school district.

With such a hot-button issue, one of the main challenges in the case—as evident in a a lot of the blog coverage—will be separating opinions of the complainant's religion from her rights under the law. That's something that Volokh also sums up beautifully:

"[…] the federal government is acting pretty much the way that it’s supposed to act when a claim of violation of American antidiscrimination law is raised. It’s not showing special favoritism towards Muslims in this case. Rather, it appears to be applying to them the protections that Title VII mandates for all religions."
That said, the case has also raised some questions that—while likely to have no legal significance in terms of the outcome—nonetheless offer an interesting insight into the question of religious accommodation and the extent to which an employee should also be expected to accommodate the needs of an employer.

To that end, some have expressed the view that three weeks is excessive, given that the Hajj takes 5 days to complete—even though the duration of the leave, by the DOJ's account, isn't the reason the school district turned down the request. Others, meanwhile, have argued that Khan should have waited until the Hajj coincided with school vacation break (which is possible, given that the Islamic calendar is lunar). Again, while that's not the point the DOJ claims the school district made, it does raise the question of the employee's responsibility to the employer—is it reasonable to request time off now if you can feasibly wait?

Read More:
The Justice Department: Justice Department Files Religious Discrimination Lawsuit Against Berkeley School District in Illinois
The Volokh Conspiracy: “Department of Justice Enforces the Sharia: Sues Illinois School District for Muslim Teacher Hajj”
The Atlantic Wire: DOJ Sues School District Over Muslim Pilgrimage (contains summary of other blogs on the subject)

Extra Insight: Rising Discrimination Against Muslim Workers

--Phil Stott, Vault.com

Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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