Muslim group files religious discrimination complaint against Maryland public schools

(RNS) — The nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization has lodged a charge of religious discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission following a Maryland middle school teacher’s forced administrative leave.

In the complaint, filed Wednesday (Dec. 6), the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Legal Defense Fund said its client, a Muslim woman, was unfairly put on indefinite leave from her post at Montgomery County Public Schools in Rockville, Maryland, after expressing support for Palestine amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.

On Dec. 8, the organization and supporters gathered outside of the MCPS Board of Education for a news conference detailing the EEOC complaint.

The plaintiff, Hajur El-Haggan, has taught sixth and seventh grade math in the school district for almost a decade.

On Nov. 20, according to the complaint, an administrator informed El-Haggan that she was placed on leave for violating the district’s employee code of conduct with her email signature, which stated, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

“I am an American of Sudanese and Egyptian national origin who has been very public and supportive of the fight for justice,” said El-Haggan at Friday’s news conference. “It is intrinsically tied to the core of who I am as a Muslim and as an Arab.”

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CAIR argued the school district violated the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act by discriminating against El-Haggan for her religious background, as colleagues who engaged in similar conduct did not face reprobation. While other educators expressed support for causes like Black Lives Matter or the Rainbow Alliance through their email taglines, El-Haggan was the first to face punitive action, according to the complaint.

“The practice of putting a social justice slogan in your email signature or tagline is one that has been done by Montgomery County Public School employees for years now,” said CAIR attorney Rawda Fawaz, in an interview with RNS. “But this was the first time that someone has gotten put on leave for doing so. We do not think it’s a coincidence that our client is a Muslim Arab woman and was singled out because of this.”

Montgomery County Public Schools confirmed that El-Haggan is on administrative leave “pending an investigation.”

“Given that this is a personnel matter, we cannot comment any further,” said a representative. 

Starting on Oct. 13, amid Israeli airstrikes on Gaza, El-Haggan wore clothing to school that signified her support for Palestinian citizens. She wore a red hijab and black-and-green clothing to represent the colors of the Palestinian flag, as well as shirts and homemade pins with “Free Palestine” slogans.

El-Haggan also fastened a large Palestinian flag on her car, which was cut and damaged by an unknown person on Nov. 17, according to the complaint.

As a practicing Muslim, the complaint states, El-Haggan holds a personal religious connection to the Palestinian freedom movement: especially the right of Palestinian citizens to move to and from Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, the third-holiest site in Islam. 

Instead of being given the option to remove her email signature, El-Haggan’s attorneys said, she was given a “vague” letter instructing her to leave school grounds effective immediately. More than three weeks later, El-Haggan has yet to hear anything from the county itself, they said.

This fact, her attorneys said, not only violates the administrative procedures outlined by the school’s termination policies, but also directly conflicts with the Montgomery County’s emphasis on restorative justice: a practice that encourages employees to share their political and social views to advance dialogue and understanding in areas of conflict.

“The way Montgomery County chose to handle my situation is the antithesis of restorative justice,” said El-Haggan.

“I feel as though if I looked different, dressed differently, had a different name, or was of a different background, this would not be happening to me,” she added. “I feel disempowered with the power differential that is working against who I am and what I believe.”

El-Haggan’s administrative leave comes at a time when public schools across the country are grappling with questions of free speech in light of the ongoing conflict. Teachers and students alike have been suspended for emails, lessons and chants supporting Palestinians.

Since Oct. 7, the federal government has opened several investigations into a rise of antisemitic and Islamophobic harassment at universities. And on Dec. 8, the U.S. Department of Education added six more schools to its list as part of an “alarming nationwide rise in reports of antisemitism, anti-Muslim, anti-Arab and other forms of discrimination” across K-12 and college campuses.

“We’re in a difficult time right now, and there is a lot going on,” said Fawaz. “But unfortunately, that has motivated a lot of this discriminatory treatment. I think it’s shocking, especially as we hear about the shortages of qualified educators.”

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In a statement to RNS from CAIR Maryland director Zainab Chaudry, she wrote that the “consistent dehumanization of Palestinians by government officials and media has led to an unprecedented surge of hate bias and requests for assistance. Our office in Maryland has heard from students who tell us they feel stifled and unsupported; many principals have issued one sided statements that ignore the experiences, trauma, pain and anguish of Palestinian, Muslim and Arab communities amidst the ongoing genocide in Gaza.”

El-Haggan, who holds two master’s degrees in special education and STEM educational leadership, has supervised the debate team, creative writing collective and the anime club at Montgomery County Public Schools, which is the only school system she has ever worked at, according to her statement at Friday’s news conference. 

“Every day I am away from my students, it breaks my heart,” she said. 

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