Why was this Passover different from all other Passovers?
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The freedom of religion is the right to exercise one’s faith, whether in a house of worship, at home, or at work. Yet many Americans still face discrimination from their employers for practicing their faith – even on their day off.

I was punished, and effectively forced out of my job of over 26 years, because I observed Passover. So I’m going to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to hear my case.

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The eight-day festival of Passover is a time when the Jewish people commemorate the end of their slavery in Egypt and the beginning of their freedom to worship God. As an Orthodox Jewish woman, I celebrate this sacred time by recounting the exodus from Egypt to remember that we were blessed with freedom to worship God, not just thousands of years ago, but also today.

 

My faith requires me to refrain from working on the first two and last two days of the eight-day Passover holiday. As I noted in my case, each year during my 26 years at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), I submitted a list of all Jewish holidays on which I would take leave that year, a procedure that was always accepted by my different supervisors.

In 2013, I followed the same protocol as I had for decades. On my last workday before the last two days of Passover, both my immediate and second level supervisors were out, which was highly unusual, but I still emailed a reminder to both. My second level supervisor replied, saying, “Thanks. Please provide us a status update before you leave today,” which I did.

But when I returned after Passover that year, something was different.

Instead of being allowed to resume work, my immediate supervisor accused me of failing to receive her oral approval, even though I had followed MWAA’s leave policy, which only requires an exchange of emails between the employee and a supervisor before an absence.

Then the MWAA — an agency with over 1,500 employees, a 17-member Board of Directors appointed by the president of the United States, the governors of Virginia and Maryland, and the D.C. mayor, and control over Ronald Reagan Washington National and Washington Dulles International airports — placed me on AWOL for the last two days of Passover for violating leave policy and suspended me in May for an additional five days without pay with an added-on insubordination charge for using my own vacation time to worship God. I was compelled due to what I considered a hostile environment to take early retirement that same month.

I am not going to let this enormous injustice stand.

Represented by Nathan Lewin of Lewin & Lewin, I sued the MWAA for discriminating against me, as an Orthodox Jewish woman, and for violating my right to observe a widely known Jewish holiday.

In court, the MWAA claimed it was an “interstate compact entity,” not a government entity and does not have to follow either the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”) or Virginia’s state version of that law. Passed in 1993 by a bipartisan Congress, RFRA blocks government agencies from unreasonably burdening an individual’s religious practice.

By punishing me for observing Passover, the MWAA basically said it was above the law. The natural but dangerous conclusion is that any employer can terminate a religious employee without consequence, and even ban the hiring of Jews in the first place.

When a Virginia federal district court ruled against me, I appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. In June 2016 Becket, a non-profit religious liberty law firm, and the American Jewish Committee filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting my fight, arguing that MWAA must be held accountable to anti-discrimination laws like RFRA and justly accommodate religious holidays for employees.

Earlier this year, a panel of the Fourth Circuit again ruled against me without quoting MWAA’s Leave Policy, which I followed, and declined to consider whether MWAA is exempt from the federal and state RFRA, and other federal law issues. I appealed that decision to the entire court, but was denied.

This was a setback, but I will continue fighting, this time all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Why? Because no employer should be able to trample on an employee’s religious freedom.

Protecting the right to celebrate Passover safeguards the right for all Americans to practice their religion, on any day, but especially on their vacation day.

Susan Abeles is an Orthodox Jew and the plaintiff in a case against the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.