In 2008, Safoorah Khan, had been teaching middle school math for about nine months in Illinois when she made a request; Khan wanted 3 weeks off for a pilgrimage to Mecca, or the hajj – a trip that all Muslims are obligated to do once in their lifetimes if possible, and one of the five pillars of Islam. Khan, the school’s only math instructor for the semester, was denied her request. She decided to resign and make the trip anyway.
In December of 2010, the United States Justice Department sued Khan’s school district, accusing them of violating her civil rights by forcing her to choose between her job and her faith.
Cases like these are not uncommon in the United States. Across all faiths, time-off and scheduling requests may often be denied in workplaces. For example, this month, a Missouri court ruled that a Seventh-day Adventist’s request to have the Sabbath off could not be accommodated. The “8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, upholding a lower court decision, ruled that giving [the employee] Saturdays off would create an ‘undue hardship’ for his fellow mail carriers and the post office where he worked.”
However, Safoorah Khan’s case is getting quite a bit more attention the Seventh-day Adventist’s. Why? Anti-Muslim sentiments seem to be bubbling over with King’s hearings and Qur’an burnings on the front page of newspapers daily. Many have attacked Safoorah Khan’s case, deeming it as politically motivated and an attempt by the Obama administration to mend relations with American Muslims.
Others have asked “why can’t she go during the summer vacation?” The hajj isn’t just a vacation trip to Mecca, rather a pilgrimagewhich many Muslims believe they are obligated to fulfill as soon as they have the means. The hajj takes place over five days during the 12th month of the lunar calendar. In other words, the hajj is time-sensitive, and falls out at a different time each year. By the time the hajj would fall on Khan’s summer vacation, nearly a decade would have passed.
Sayyid Syeed, who directs interfaith and community affairs for the Islamic Society of North America, put it this way; “Asking a Muslim to move the pilgrimage to summer is like asking a Christian to celebrate Christmas in July.” He also explained "if she waits, and she gets sick and dies, how will she be able to explain why she did not do it? There is a compelling passion to go as soon as possible."
For whatever her reason, waiting wasn’t an option for Khan. But ultimately the courts will have to decide if the school district could have reasonably accommodated her request. Historically, courts have decided cases both ways; but what’s critical for employers, is to remember that the process of accommodating requests is a two-way street. If an unreasonable request is made, the employer must take the initiative to propose alternative accommodations.
Regardless of the outcome, cases like Khan’s offer employers the opportunity to learn; about employees of diverse faiths, about approaching accommodations, and about the political climate we’ve found ourselves in today. However, it’s important to be mindful that each request that employers encounter will be unique, and should be treated that way. By asking the right questions, getting creative with accommodations, and finally, being aware of legal responsibilities and limitations, employers can begin to prepare themselves for an increasingly diverse workforce.