There is no political motive behind the Department of Justice’s lawsuit on behalf of a Muslim teacher who had to quit her job to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca, said Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez, the head of DOJ’s Civil Rights Division. Rather, he said, the suit is aimed at protecting the principles of religious liberty on which the country was founded.
“This was a profoundly personal request by a person of faith,” Perez said in an interview with The Washington Post. He was referring to Safoorah Khan, 29, who had taught middle school math for nine months in the Chicago suburb of Berkeley when she asked for three weeks off for the pilgrimage.
The school district said no, that it needed Khan for end-of-semester duties. So she quit and went on the pilgrimage anyway, and now the DOJ is suing the school district, accusing it of violating her civil rights by putting forcing her to choose between job and faith.
Perez said the suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, in Chicago, is intended to safeguard “the religious liberty that our forefathers came to this country for” and to help stem a “head wind of intolerance” toward Muslims.
But the lawsuit has been greeted with some skepticism since it was filed in December. Berkeley Village President Michael A. Esposito told The Post that the suit is “targeting a small community.”
“The school district just wanted a teacher in the room for those three weeks,” Esposito said, alluding to the stretch in December 2008, when Khan went on her pilgrimage. “They didn’t care if she was a Martian, a Muslim or a Catholic.”
“How come we bow down to certain religious groups?” said Esposito, who described himself as a political independent. “Why don’t we go out of our way for the Baptists or the Jehovah’s Witnesses?”
Michael B. Mukasey, who was Attorney General under President George W. Bush, called the lawsuit “a very dubious judgment and a real legal reach.”
Attorney General Eric Holder has said the Obama administration has said it is committed to protecting the rights of Muslims while being vigilant against terrorism. And just last week, FBI Director Robert Mueller said his agency has a “very good relationship” with Muslim Americans and is trying to reach out to them, as Main Justice reported.