A suburban school district is being sued because it denied a teacher's request for an unpaid, three-week leave in order to make a religious pilgrimage. The lawsuit claims that the Berkeley school district violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on religion. (It also prohibits discrimination based on other factors, like race, sex and national origin.)
The teacher wanted to make the pilgrimage to Mecca. This trip, called the Hajj, is a requirement of her religion. Every Muslim who is physically and financially able must make the pilgrimage once in their lifetime. It occurs at a specific time each year. After her request was denied twice, the teacher resigned and filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the federal government decided to sue.
The bottom line is that employers are required to make "reasonable accommodations" for religious beliefs and practices. This lawsuit claims that the school district, in denying the request for the unpaid leave, failed to make a reasonable accommodation.
So what's reasonable? Time off for religious observances is a common accommodation. Other examples: allowing employees to wear religious clothing, giving employees a place to pray, or being flexible with scheduling.
What's not reasonable? Anything that causes an undue hardship on the employer. An undue hardship is typically something that costs an employer money, although it could also be something that negatively affects other employees or impairs safety. It's determined on a case-by-case basis.
So the question is whether a three-week leave is reasonable in this case. Is it an undue hardship on the school? The leave would have been unpaid, so funding a substitute teacher wouldn't have been an issue. However, what about the length of the trip? The effect on the students?
In the best case scenario, an employer and employee work together to agree on and set up a reasonable accommodation. The sooner you do this the better. An employee needs to be clear about any accommodations they are requesting, and an employer needs to at least try and work out a solution.
In this case, I'm guessing that given how new the employee and where she wants to go is that most people won't side with her, but just because people don't agree with you doesn't mean that you won't win.
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