Safoorah Khan had taught middle school math for only nine months in this tiny Chicago suburb when she made an unusual request. She wanted three weeks off for a pilgrimage to Mecca.
The school district, faced with losing its only math lab instructor during the critical end-of-semester marking period, said no. Khan, a devout Muslim, resigned and made the trip anyway.
Justice Department lawyers examined the same set of facts and reached a different conclusion: that the school district’s decision amounted to outright discrimination against Khan. They filed an unusual lawsuit, accusing the district of violating her civil rights by forcing her to choose between her job and her faith.
As the case moves forward in federal court in Chicago, it has triggered debate over whether the Justice Department was following a purely legal path or whether suing on Khan’s behalf was part of a broader Obama administration campaign to reach out to Muslims.
Khan, 29, who grew up in North Carolina and Arkansas, was happy in the job, said her lawyer, Kamran A. Memon. But she longed to make the hajj, one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith, which Muslims are obligated to do once. It would not have fallen on her summer break for about nine years.
“This was the first year she was financially able to do it,” Memon said. “It’s her religious belief that a Muslim must go for hajj quickly . . . that it’s a sin to delay.” Khan declined to comment.
On [election day 2008], voters in the small town of Kinston, North Carolina were also casting ballots. More than 11,000 local residents turned out, many of whom helped propel Barack Obama to victory. In addition to the federal elections, Kinstonians also voted on a local question: Whether to eliminate candidates’ political party identification on municipal election ballots. By a margin of nearly 2-to-1—including wide support from the black community—the locals chose to drop D’s and R’s from future town-wide contests. The Holder Justice Department, naturally, had to intervene.
Why? Well, the feds simply couldn’t abide the will of Kinston’s silly, ignorant populace. Without a ‘D-for-Democrat’ printed conspicuously beside a local candidate’s name on the ballot, they explained, black voters may not be able to figure out whom to support. This wasn’t the DOJ’s ulterior motivate in overturning the valid election result—it was their primary justification. They even put it in writing. An August memo spells out the racial snobbery in excruciatingly blunt language: “Removing the partisan cue in municipal elections will, in all likelihood, eliminate the single factor that allows black candidates to be elected to office.” Really.