Go for hajj … immediately

The Washington Post has a provocative story about the Justice Department suing a Chicago school district for outright religious discrimination. The reporter does a great job of writing the piece in a thorough and impartial manner. The facts are stated, multiple viewpoints are offered, and the result is a very interesting piece. Here’s how it begins:

BERKELEY, Ill. — 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.

As the case moves forward in federal court in Chicago, it has triggered debate over whether the Justice Department was following a purely legal path or whether suing on Khan’s behalf was part of a broader Obama administration campaign to reach out to Muslims.

Those facts and debates are what comprise the rest of the article. Government officials defend the case, Muslim voices support it and various other legal minds question exactly what’s going on, and the debate makes for interesting reading. It’s certainly true that a first year teacher’s request for three-weeks’ leave during first semester finals is going to have legal wrinkles.

I was curious, though, about the religious particulars. I know that Muslims are to complete hajj during their lifetime. Why was this particular year so important for Khan? Here’s how the reporter handled that issue:

Khan, 29, who grew up in North Carolina and Arkansas, was happy in the job, said her lawyer, Kamran A. Memon. But she longed to make the hajj, one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith, which Muslims are obligated to do once. It would not have fallen on her summer break for about nine years.

“This was the first year she was financially able to do it,” Memon said. “It’s her religious belief that a Muslim must go for hajj quickly . . . that it’s a sin to delay.” Khan declined to comment.

This leads me to another question. Is it “her” belief that she had to go quickly or is this an actual tenet of her faith? Is this a common view or a particular one? I know that financial means plays a role in this pillar. Does that mean that employer hardship must also be considered?

Muslim viewpoints were included in the article, such as this kicker that gives us an indication of Muslim support for her views on timeliness:

A few miles away at the Islamic Foundation, support for Khan was uniform. “If she was a Jew, would they treat her the same way?” Nabih Kamaan of Bloomingdale, Ill., asked as he arrived for Friday prayers.

“What if she was sick? What if she had a baby?” said Kamaan, who added that the lawsuit “is the right thing to do.”

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  • Jerry

    This is not a new question. Yes, I’m aware of the current state of journalism, but really the reporter should have done more research as the voice of religious precedent was missing:

    Question:

    For three years I have submitted requests to my employer so that I may perform the obligation of Hajj. However, the requests have been denied, as the work needs me. Is there any sin on me for that? Is there any sin on me if I perform Hajj without them knowing or without their agreement?

    Answer:

    Yes, as long as you are restrained by someone else against your will, there is no Hajj for you until after attaining the agreement of that person. If the need requires that you stay (and not go for Hajj), there is no harm in that until the need goes away, either by someone else filling in for you or by some other method.

    http://www.fatwaislam.com/fis/index.cfm?scn=fd&ID=506

    http://www.fatwaislam.com/fis/index.cfm?scn=fd&ID=510 says about the same thing.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Also, tenure laws should have been looked into. It used to be, in most states, that before she is on tenure, a teacher could be fired for any reason or for NO reason whatsoever. You were understood to be walking on thin ice until tenure.
    I wonder if the justice department or media would have been on my side if I had wanted to take off the Catholic Holy Days of Ascension Thursday or the Feast of the Immaculate Conception or Easter Monday (as most Catholic countries do). Maybe we Catholics should have fought harder to have our religious particularities honored.

  • Dave

    Maybe we Catholics should have fought harder to have our religious particularities honored.

    Do those particularities require you to be elsewhere than your place of employment?

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Dave, the elsewhere is Mass for the first two I named. They are Holy Days of Obligation–and they are supposed to be treated as a Sunday–unless it would endanger our employment. And, with the shortage of priests it is getting harder to find a Mass that it is possible to attend when expected at work.
    In our city the union got it so that Jews and Buddhists–and soon Moslems– could use one of their 3 “personal” days to celebrate their holidays instead of it needing to be for business type reasons (like passing papers when buying a house).
    I tried to get Catholics covered the same why and all I got from our useless union (that I was coerced into paying dues to, so they could ignore who they want to ignore) was the phony charge I was being anti-Semitic and only trying to wipe away Jewish holidays. They just couldn’t comprehend a Catholic actually sticking up for his holy days unless there were ulterior motives.

  • Marie

    The article does not address why she needed three weeks. I came up with 5-6 days to complete Hajj in my online search. Add a few days for travel and that is still a long way away from three weeks. It sounds more like religious observance and a vacation. I would have liked the journalist to ask for an explanation or justification of her timeline.

  • Dave

    Deacon, I can’t argue with your description of your union as useless.

  • John M

    Deacon John,

    IANAL, but in general, a protected class is a protected class, regardless of “probationary” periods or at-will employment agreements. The school district is not allowed to terminate her for the simple fact that she is Muslim (religion), or any of the other protected classes, including race and national origin. So tenure doesn’t matter here.

    It’s now up to the Justice Department to provide a preponderance of the evidence that she was discriminated against solely because she was a Muslim.

    I’m not the first to suggest that this may be a difficult case to make.

    Say, I wonder how this plays out in light of the “anti-Sharia” laws getting passed. Would the fatwas that Jerry cites above be admissible as evidence in this kind of a case? Oh, dear.

    -John

  • J

    I agree with Jerry that more should have been done to look into whether quitting your job to go on the hajj is required. The fatwas he lists may not apply-we don’t know what variety of Islam the teacher subscribed to. I found one quite fascinating hajj question here: http://www.ilmgate.org/performing-hajj-with-unlawful-wealth/. The questioner had obtained money for their hajj from managing a theatre that sold alcohol, had money received as interest, and had debts exceeding assets. The advisor concluded that the money from the first two sources had to be given to charity and not used for hajj, and there was no obligation to perform hajj when debts exceed assets. I know, too, that physical inability can negate obligation. Clearly, the hajj obligation is a complicated subject.

    Will be interesting to see if her subjective belief about the necessity of performing the hajj matches with an established specific tradition.

    This story is old…it was published in smaller, apparently Muslim related publications in December. Example http://arabnews.com/world/article215627.ece

  • J

    Interesting article here:

    http://volokh.com/2010/12/14/department-of-justice-enforces-the-sharia-sues-illinois-school-district-for-muslim-teacher-hajj/

    Those of you familiar with Eugene Volokh know that he is very much on the “right.” He concludes that filing of this suit is very consistent with past government action in religious leave cases involving the Worldwide Church of God 8-10 day leave annually. There are a number of questions which might go against the teacher, but in general Volokh concludes that “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.”

    Deacon-I think you’d have a good shot at getting your days off if you approach the employers directly after reading this, but this isn’t legal advice (have to say that since I’m a lawyer).

  • Peggy

    Related to Deacon John’s comments on allowances for Catholics. I just finished teaching CCD (PSR) students that the Catholic Church does teach that we are to treat holy days of obligation like Sundays, in worship, avoidance of unnecessary work. Ideally, we Catholics ought not work on HDOs. Our Catholic schools are now open on HDOs. We don’t expect that right so much any more. I think these varying religious holy days are why many employers grant “personal” or “floating” holidays allowing employees to use such days for say Good Friday, Jewish holy days, according to their beliefs.

    Good research Marie. Most articles I have read do indicate that she had no religious obligation to go during the hajj period and could make a pilgrimage any time of year during her life.

    John M. I understand she was not terminated. She quit b/c they did not grant her request.

    I can’t imagine successfully obtaining 3 weeks off for any purpose in the first year of a new job. I’d think schools would be less willing to grant such extended leave when the annual work period is about 9 of 12 months, leaving 3 mos a year during which a teacher may pursue his/her interests unfettered by work obligations. O that the rest of us were so blessed. She should have gotten a position at Oshkosh, WI, where teachers until recently were given 90 sick days per year. They might have been more generous on this.

    http://www.thenorthwestern.com/article/20110319/OSH0105/110318132/Union-concessions-would-save-Oshkosh-district-least-4-million-renegotiated-contracts?odyssey=tab|topnews|text|FRONTPAGE

  • kristy

    Sorry, I have to answer back to Peggy, here. Teachers don’t get off 90 sick days per year. You can accumulate up to 90 paid sick days if you don’t take them in previous years. It’s ten sick days per year. I’ve heard everything from ‘Teachers only work 8 months a year” to “They retire and get all of their health care paid for free.” reported in newspapers as facts. I’ve also had it reported in a database with public links placed in Gannett newspapers that say I make $53,000 a year for working ten percent time. That is a lie, but since it’s in a database, people think it must be true. I know this site is about religion, but the ethics of newspapers reporting information in a sloppy way, so people assume wrong conclusions has been bothering me a lot, lately.

  • John M

    Peggy,

    The Muslim Hajj happens at a particular time of the year. If you do the function of the Hajj at another time of the year, it’s called “umrah” and doesn’t count as having done the Hajj proper.

    The Muslim calendar is a pure lunar calendar without any adjustment to the solar calendar, so 12 lunar months take approximately 11 fewer days to complete than 12 months on the Gregorian solar calendar. That is to say, the date for the start of the Hajj gets 11 days “earlier” each year according to our calendar. That does mean that if she waits long enough, it will eventually swing around to her summer break, thus the comment from the article, “It would not have fallen on her summer break for about nine years.” Now, what that means for her religious obligations is now up to the courts to sort out.

    And yes, I’m aware that she wasn’t terminated, however, termination is not the only thing that can bring about a discrimination lawsuit in the case of a protected class. As a manager, I’m not allowed to give one of my team members the “scut work” of the team due to their membership in a protected class. That’s patently illegal. I am legally permitted to give someone scut work for a reason that doesn’t involve their status as a member of a protected class (i.e. they are a lousy employee), though that can be risky territory, particularly if they want to argue with my employer in court about whether I did it because they were a lousy employee or I did it because they were a member of a protected class.

    -John

  • Peggy R

    Kristy,

    The media reports such as that I linked, indicated that Oshkosh, WI, gave 90 days =/yr until recently. Now the teachers may accumulate up to 90 days. I imagine that few districts would give outright 90 days/yr.

  • J

    Checked out the Oshkosh story a bit. Apparently, this was intended as an alternative to short term disability insurance, which is not an uncommon benefit. See

    http://www.620wtmj.com/shows/charliesykes/118325714.html (comment by h2ovb)

    http://jobsearchtech.about.com/od/careerplanning/a/disability.htm.

    In any event, way off of the topic…


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