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.
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.
Although the Justice Department, including during the Bush administration, and private plaintiffs have filed civil rights lawsuits on religious grounds, they have tended to be over issues such as whether employees can take off on the Sabbath or wear religious head coverings.
Cases involving the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, or hajj, are exceedingly rare, said Christina Abraham, civil rights director for the Chicago office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.