The Department of Justice (DOJ) has filed a lawsuit against Berkeley School District, Illinois, for refusing to grant unpaid leave to a Muslim teacher who wished to make a pilgrimage to Mecca.

As per the complaint filed in the District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in Chicago, Safoorah Khan had requested an unpaid leave of absence in December 2008 to perform Hajj, a pilgrimage required by her religion.

The Board of Education had twice denied Khan's request citing that the purpose of the leave was neither related to her professional duties as an employee and nor was it a leave for any of the specific purposes set forth in the Professional Negotiations Agreement between the district and the teachers' union.

After the district denied her request, Khan wrote to the board, saying that based on her religious beliefs, she could not justify delaying performing Hajj, and she resigned shortly thereafter.

Khan then filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The commission found reasonable causes of discrimination by the school district against her and, after failing in its attempt to conciliate the matter, it forwarded the case to the DOJ.

In the lawsuit, the DOJ has alleged that the school district has violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by failing to reasonably accommodate the religious practices of the teacher.

The DOJ is seeking an order requiring Berkeley School District to adopt a policy designed to reasonably accommodate the religious observances, practices and beliefs of employees and prospective employees.

In addition, the federal government is seeking back pay, compensatory damages and reinstatement for the teacher.

Employees should not have to choose between their religious practice and their livelihood, said Assistant Attorney General (Civil Rights Division) Thomas Perez. Federal law prohibits employers from treating employees and applicants less favorably because of their religion, and requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for the religious beliefs and practices of their employees.

This is the first lawsuit brought by the Department of Justice as a result of a pilot project designed to ensure vigorous enforcement of Title VII against state and local governmental employers by enhancing cooperation between the EEOC and the Civil Rights Division.