Advocacy groups back Orthodox woman claiming religious discrimination



Two religious advocacy groups have entered a legal battle in support of a Silver Spring Jewish woman who accuses her former employer of firing her because of her Passover observance.

The American Jewish Committee and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty on June 7 filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., “defending the right of employees to observe their religious holidays,” according to a statement from the Becket Fund.

The case involves, Susan Abeles, who filed a lawsuit last May in federal district court against Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority, claiming that her former employer of 26 years violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Abeles claimed she was coerced into retiring — to avoid facing further discrimination — after her supervisors penalized her for observing the Jewish holiday of Passover in 2013. The lawsuit named the MWAA as well as Abeles’ former supervisors Valerie O’Hara and Julia Hodge. Abeles is represented by Nathan Lewin of Lewin & Lewin.

The MWAA argued that Abeles failed to follow standard procedure for requesting time off and therefore was “absent without leave,” resulting in a five-day suspension.

The federal district court ruled against Abeles on March 14; she filed her appeal with the Fourth Circuit Court on March 25.

In their brief, the organizations argued that the MWAA “does not recognize the significance of Passover for observant Orthodox Jews like Ms. Abeles. Instead its position is that it can ignore Passover entirely: As long as it does not act out of outright hostility towards Jews, it can penalize Jews for observing Passover.”

“This case is just one more example of the rampant anti-Semitism that Orthodox Jews face every day,” according to a written statement by Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel for the Becket Fund, a non-profit, public-interest law firm. “In recent years there has been a concerted effort to keep the Orthodox out of certain neighborhoods, out of certain schools and out of certain jobs.”

AJC joined in the brief “because airport authority made a fairly astounding claim which would gut the accommodations and provisions of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Right Acts, a law which the Jewish community has for 40 some odd years now unanimously supported,” said Marc Stern, general counsel for AJC.

Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of religion, among other things.

A MWAA spokesperson said that the district court’s ruling “determined that the claims of religious discrimination lacked merit,” but declined to comment further.

Stern said if the Fourth Circuit decides to hear oral arguments, then the government will file its brief responding to the appeal in the summer and the case will be argued late fall or early winter.

Rassbach’s written statement continued: “The Fourth Circuit can send a strong message in favor of interreligious understanding by recognizing MWAA’s duty to provide reasonable accommodations to believers.”

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