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Appeals Court Rules Against Muslim Instructional Aide in Ohio District

A federal appeals court has ruled against a Muslim cleric who was dismissed from his job as an instructional assistant in an Ohio school district after he disregarded orders to stop leaving school early to conduct prayer services at his mosque.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, ruled unanimously against the instructional assistant even though it found he had made a facial case of First Amendment retaliation over comments he had made about the district.

The plaintiff, Abdurahman Haji, was hired as an instructional assistant at a Columbus middle school and worked in an English-as-a-second-language classroom that mostly served Somali students. 

Haji claimed that district officials retaliated against him after he spoke out at his mosque and elsewhere about practices at middle school that offended him, court papers say. In 2007, he gave a lecture at his mosque complaining that the teaching of Greek mythology at the school was exposing Muslim students to a polytheistic belief system. The lecture was uploaded to YouTube, and school officials became aware of it by March 2008.

In another incident, Haji complained to a parent that he had seen a teacher hugging a Somali girl in a way that was inappropriate for a Muslim female.

School officials had given Haji permission to leave early on Fridays to conduct religious services at his mosque. But in April 2008, they rescinded the permission, telling Haji he could no longer leave the campus early without permission. 

Haji left school early on two occasions after the change, and he was dismissed by the district. 

He sued the school district on claims of First Amendment retaliation and religious discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

He lost in a federal district court in Columbus, and in a July 16 decision in Haji v. Columbus City Schools, the 6th Circuit court affirmed.

The appeals court said Haji made out his facial case of retaliation over his speech because district officials had clearly changed their tune about accommodating his early departures from school soon after they learned of his lecture critical of the school.

"The temporal proximity between the defendants' discovery of the YouTube video and Haji's termination, combined with the rescission of the [early-departure] agreement, could lead a jury to conclude that the video and Haji's termination were causally connected," the court said.

But that was not the end of the matter, the court continued, because even if an employee establishes that his protected conduct was a motivating factor behind his termination, an employer is not liable if it can show that it would have made the same employment decision even if the employee had not engaged in the protected activity.

"The record clearly shows that the defendants terminated Haji for blatantly violating the attendance policy," the court said. "The defendants warned Haji several times to follow the policy in April 2008, but Haji continued to leave early without signing out each Friday."

On the religious bias claim, the 6th Circuit panel said Haji failed to make out a facial case that the district treated him differently based on his Muslim faith.

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