Jewish woman loses job for observing Passover American Jewish Committee, Becket urge court to protect employees’ religious holidays
Ryan Colby 202-349-7219 email@example.com
WASHINGTON, D.C. – An Orthodox Jewish woman is suing her former employer the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) after it punished her for observing Passover, considered one of the most important holidays in Judaism. Becket joined together with the American Jewish Committee, one of the nation’s leading Jewish advocacy groups, to file a friend-of-the-court brief Tuesday defending the right of employees to observe their religious holidays.
“It takes some chutzpah for the government to punish a Jewish woman for celebrating Passover,” said Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel at Becket, which prepared the friend-of-the-court brief supporting Ms. Abeles. “That didn’t work out so well for Pharaoh.”
Susan Abeles worked for the MWAA for 26 years and each year was given approved time off to observe Passover in accordance with her Orthodox Jewish beliefs. In 2013, Ms. Abeles followed the same procedure, giving ample notice and several reminders about her upcoming time off. However, when she returned to work, her superiors accused her of failing to follow proper protocol for obtaining leave. Eventually they forced her into early retirement.
MWAA claims that even though it was specifically created by Congress and exercises powers Congress gave it, MWAA has nothing to do with the federal government. At the same time MWAA says it is not subject to state laws either. That would lead to the absurd and frightening result that MWAA is a law unto itself. MWAA would not have to follow the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) or Virginia religious freedom laws, giving it free rein to avoid many anti-discrimination laws. But Becket and the American Jewish Committee argue that MWAA is not above the law. Their brief states, “Can a governmental entity wielding the full force of law, armed with police and eminent domain powers and tasked with the oversight of two of the busiest airports in the country, properly declare itself exempt from the reach of both state and federal anti-discrimination law? …the law says no.”
Passover is observed for eight days, and Jewish religious law prohibits work during the first two and last two days. Millions of Orthodox Jews like Ms. Abeles have observed Passover for thousands of years, yet the MWAA’s policy is to simply ignore this important religious holiday.
“This case is just one more example of the rampant antisemitism that Orthodox Jews face every day,” said Rassbach. “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. The Fourth Circuit can send a strong message in favor of interreligious understanding by recognizing MWAA’s duty to provide reasonable accommodations to believers.”
A Virginia federal district court ruled against Ms. Abeles, and she appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia. Becket and the American Jewish Committee filed an amicus brief Tuesday on behalf of Ms. Abeles, arguing that the MWAA cannot unilaterally exempt itself from federal civil rights laws and that it clearly violated the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Susan Abeles is represented by Nathan Lewin of Lewin & Lewin.
For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-349-7224. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.
Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions and has a 100% win-rate before the United States Supreme Court. For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more).