The Washington Post's Jerry Markon reports today on the Obama administration's decision to file a civil rights lawsuit against a small Chicago-area district for refusing to grant a three-week leave of absence to its only math lab instructor during its end-of-semester marking period. The teacher, 29-year-old Safoorah Khan, a Muslim, had been working at the Berkeley district's MacArthur Middle School for nine months when she requested three weeks off for a pilgrimage to Mecca. Berkeley's administration declined her request, determining it was unrelated to her job, not authorized by the union contract, and represented an "undue hardship" for the district and its students. This all transpired in spring 2008.
Khan responded by quitting her position. The Obama Justice Department is now filing suit seeking back pay, damages, and reinstatement for Khan, and a court order requiring Berkeley schools to find ways to accommodate religious practices. All of this strikes me as a troubling reading of the First Amendment and the requirement that employers "reasonably accommodate" religious practices, and a Justice Department victory here strikes me as a worrisome precedent for district and school leaders across the land. That's doubly true because the hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam, is something every Muslim is obligated to do once in their lifetime, and it's not like Khan was racing the clock. Indeed, the WaPo reports that the hajj would have coincided with her scheduled summer break within a decade.
But, for me, the most intriguing part in all of this is her argument--now endorsed by the Obama administration--that her absence would not have impacted her students. Her attorney, Kamran Memon, has explained, "Berkeley has qualified subs. She didn't feel her absence would cause any problem at all."
Well, that seems to suggest a handsome new slogan for Obama administration efforts when it comes to "teacher effectiveness." Is it just me, or does it strike anyone else as peculiar that an administration which has touted its commitment to teacher quality is suing a school system on behalf of the proposition that a first-year teacher has a constitutional right to abandon her students so long as "qualified subs" are available?