Case of Safoorah Khan: Winning Muslim Hearts and Minds With Favoritism

For a President who lectures his fellow citizens on the importance of math and science education, Barack Obama’s defense of a math teacher who abandoned her students to take a vacation seems inexplicable.

But the more one learns about the case of Safoorah Khan, the clearer it becomes that, under Obama, the scales of justice may have been tipped in favor of the Muslim community.

In 2008, Khan, a middle school math lab instructor in Berkeley, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, asked for 19 days of unpaid leave to perform a hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

Because the trip was unrelated to Khan’s professional duties, her request was twice denied.  Not only had Khan been on the job just nine months, she was the sole math lab instructor and wanted to take her trip in early December, during the school’s crucial end-of-semester testing period.

Khan resigned from her job and traveled to Mecca anyway.  Last December, the U.S. Department of Justice filed suit against the Berkeley school district for violating Khan’s civil rights.

The case is drawing more attention, and prompting more questions, as it moves forward in federal court in Chicago.  A front page Washington Post story last week stated that the case “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.”

The Justice Department argues that the school district violated the Civil Rights Act by failing to accommodate Khan’s religious beliefs.  By “compelling” Khan to choose between her job and religion, the lawsuit states, the district forced her to quit.

According to the Post, the Obama administration is seeking back pay, damages, and reinstatement for Khan, as well as a court order requiring Berkeley schools to find ways to accommodate religious practices.

But the school did not force Khan to make such a zero sum choice.  Muslims are obligated to make the hajj once in their lifetime.  At 29 years old, Khan would have had many other opportunities to take the trip.  And no court has ever upheld religious-based leave of more than 10 consecutive days.

Federal law requires employers to “reasonably accommodate” religious practices unless doing so would impose undue hardship.  “The Supreme Court,” the Post noted, “has interpreted the provision narrowly, saying accommodations should be granted only if they impose a minimal burden on employers.”

The Department of Justice’s involvement in this case seems bizarre until one realizes it’s not the legal arguments of the case that matter.  What matters is the message the Obama administration’s involvement sends to Muslims.

As Shaykh Abdool Rahman Khan, resident scholar at the Islamic Foundation mosque near Berkeley, told the Post, “[The lawsuit] rings the bell of justice that [the Justice Department] will fight for a Muslim wanting to perform a religious act.  That certainly can win the hearts of many people in the Muslim world.”

Of course, winning Muslim hearts and minds is nowhere to be found in the Justice Department’s mission statement.  But under Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, the department has worked to ensure justice mainly for favored political constituencies.

The Justice Department has appeased homosexual activists by abandoning its legal support of the Defense of Marriage Act.  It has tried to placate Hispanic activist groups angry over Obama’s inability to enact immigration amnesty by suing Arizona for passing an immigration law to defend itself.

It has pandered to blacks by refusing to take up the New Black Panther voter intimidation case in Philadelphia, and by filing a brief in support of the city of New Haven, Conn., defending the city’s refusal to promote white firefighters on racial grounds.

All those groups are important to this administration.  But none gets the special treatment that Muslims receive.  The Justice Department has filed numerous legal actions on Muslims’ behalf and pushed for civilian trials for Muslim detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

Holder has called protecting the civil rights of Muslims a “top priority” and promised “a new beginning between the United States and the Muslim community” that includes “robust enforcement” of “religious freedoms.”

But the administration is very selective in the “religious freedoms” it chooses to enforce.  Last month, the Obama administration weakened conscience clause protections for health care workers implemented by the Bush administration.  The new rules don’t protect Christian health care workers who for religious reasons do not want to prescribe contraceptives, even those, such as the “morning-after pill” and emergency contraception, that cause early abortions.

Every presidential administration since the Justice Department was created in 1870 has been accused of playing politics with the nation’s top law enforcement agency.  But the Obama administration has taken things to an entirely new level.

If our post-partisan President continues to use the law as a stepping stone to better relationships with favored constituencies, eventually we all will suffer through a diminished respect for our institutions.