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U.S. Justice Department Sues Ill. School District Over Denial Of Leave For Hajj For Islamic Teacher

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A lawsuit pitting the U.S. Department of Justice, on behalf of a Muslim teacher, against a small town in Illinois has sparked tensions and a wide debate across national media outlets.

According to the Washington Post, in November 2007, Safoorah Khan started teaching at MacArthur Middle School in Berkeley, Ill., a small community of about 5,000 people. After nine months on the job, in August 2008, she requested an unpaid leave for the first three weeks of December, so that she could make the Hajj -- a pilgrimage to Mecca (one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith) that Muslims are obligated to do once in their lifetime.

When Berkeley officials refused her request, Khan resigned and went anyway.

In November 2008, Khan filed a religious discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), stating that the school board's refusal to grant the 19-day leave amounted to religious discrimination. The EEOC states that:

"The law requires an employer or other covered entity to reasonably accommodate an employee's religious beliefs or practices, unless doing so would cause more than a minimal burden on the operations of the employer's business."

The Commission found cause for discrimination in Khan's case and referred it to the Justice Department; Justice lawyers sued in December.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the Justice Department's suit argues that the district failed to accommodate Khan's religious beliefs, and that by "compelling" Khan to choose between her job and religion, the district forced her discharge.

But Berkeley officials say that Khan's request -- which would have caused them to lose their only math lab instructor right before end-of-the-semester exams -- was unreasonable and not covered by the teachers' union contract.

The Washington Post article quotes longtime village President Michael A. Esposito, a political independent, on the matter:

"The school district just wanted a teacher in the room for those three weeks. They didn't care if she was a Martian, a Muslim or a Catholic," said Esposito.

Opponents of the lawsuit say it's more political than legal -- an attempt by the Obama administration to gain the favor of Muslims. Fox political commentators Bill O'Reilly, Jeanine Pirro, Gretchen Carlson have ridiculed the lawsuit in recent broadcasts.

According to the Chronicle, a trial date for the matter has not been set.

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