The Price of Pilgrimage

For people who complain about a “war on Christmas,” here’s a reality check. If you’re Christian in the United States, you can generally practice your religion without constraint. Assuming you don’t force your faith on others, being devout is not likely to cost you your job.

But that’s not as true if you belong to a religion, like Islam, that has fewer followers in the United States. Case in point: A Muslim middle school teacher in Illinois wanted to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca called the hajj. For Muslims, the hajj is a solemn, once-in-a-lifetime obligation for adults who are physically and financially able to travel. 

The teacher, Safoorah Khan, needed plenty of time to travel and to do all the activities associated with the hajj. So she requested about three weeks unpaid leave from her school district to fulfill her religious obligation.

Unlike the Christmas season, the hajj season usually involves no national holidays in the United States. So Khan’s school was scheduled to be in session. The district denied her request twice, saying it didn’t relate to her professional work and was not required by her contract.

After the second denial, Khan resigned. In her resignation letter, she told the school board that based on her religious beliefs, she could not justify delaying performing the hajj.

The U.S. Justice Department has stepped in and sued the school district over its decision, claiming unlawful discrimination under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. That law calls on employers to make reasonable accommodation for religious observances.

We think taking a leave without pay is pretty reasonable. 

What we don’t think is reasonable is being made to feel like a square peg in a round hole just because you’re a member of the non-majority religion.

Costello is director of Teaching Tolerance.


Ah, but the teacher in

Submitted by Keith Moore on 23 December 2010 - 3:04am.

Ah, but the teacher in question WASN'T made to feel like she didn't fit in or didn't belong. One of the deeper details of this story is that far beyond the leave without pay not being required by the contract, the contract laid out very specific instances and procedures for a teacher to receive leave without pay. A three-week absence for religious reasons is not contemplated in the contract and because school districts are typically strongly bound by the contracts they make with teacher's unions, the school dutifully adhered to the strict letter of the law. It is an unfortunate situation but Islam is a very practical and realistic religion... and contemplated this sort of circumstance when specifying that a Muslim who is financially and/or physically unable to undertake the hajj does not stand condemned. A professional of any sort who cannot retain their means of earning a living if they undertake the hajj could legitimately be said to be incapacitated in a way that would honorably relieve them of their responsibility. In other words, given the unfair situation and the honest effort she took to resolve it, Safoorah Khan honorably fulfilled the precepts of her faith and with good conscience could have set aside undertaking the journey until the obstacles were cleared from her way. It is a common Christian belief that God, being the all-powerful creator who rewards faith, will provide a way if the will is present; Ms. Khan's will was clearly present and I maintain that if she had exercised patience, Allah would have provided a way for her to fulfill the duty she clearly desired to fulfill. Instead, she surrendered her employment and other forces are intervening to bully the school into doing "the right thing." It is my impression that making herself a square peg in a round hole was the decision of Safoorah Khan, not the fault of the school.

Is there a reason she could

Submitted by Chris on 19 December 2010 - 6:07am.

Is there a reason she could not have performed her religious duty while school was not in session? Is her district/school on the "all year around" schedule, or does it have the summers off? Some more information would have been helpful before we call anyone bigoted and file suit.

Chris, Yes, there is a

Submitted by Maureen Costello on 19 December 2010 - 11:33pm.


Yes, there is a reason. This particular duty is tied to a particular set of dates in the Muslim calendar. It's not something a believer schedules at his or her own convenience. You have one chance each year to do it during the days it's taking place.

From what I understand, you

Submitted by LK on 19 December 2010 - 7:46pm.

From what I understand, you can't just make the pilgrimage at an any time you choose, it falls on specific dates in the Islamic calender.