Court hears case for employees’ rights to observe religious holidays
WASHINGTON, D.C. – An Orthodox Jewish woman who was fired by the government agency that operates Dulles and Reagan National Airports because she observed Passover took her case to court today.
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia will decide the case of Susan Abeles, who lost her job of 26 years for observing Passover, an important religious holiday in Judaism. An employee of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), the government agency that operates Reagan National and Dulles Airports, Ms. Abeles had observed Passover every year without incident until 2013, when she was punished and forced to retire despite following leave protocol.
“My Jewish faith is an integral part of who I am and that includes observing Passover,” said Susan Abeles. “I worked at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority for twenty-six years and provided to various supervisors the same advance notice of all Jewish holidays without incident. It is saddening that despite following the same protocol I had each year, I was put on AWOL and suspended for five days which drove me to retire early for simply practicing my faith.”
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 ignore this important religious holiday. Of course, like all government agencies, MWAA treats Christmas as a holiday for all workers. In 2015, Ms. Abeles sued the MWAA, which now claims to be exempt from both federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and Virginia religious freedom laws, giving it free rein to avoid all anti-discrimination laws.
Becket and the American Jewish Committee argue that MWAA is not above the law, stating in their brief, “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.”
“It takes some chutzpah for the government to punish a Jewish woman for celebrating Passover,” said Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “It takes even more chutzpah to say that they are the only government agency in DC exempt from our civil rights laws.”
Becket and the American Jewish Committee, a leading Jewish advocacy group, filed a friend-of-the-court brief earlier this year defending Ms. Abeles and her right to practice her faith as protected by RFRA. After a Virginia federal district court ruled against Ms. Abeles, she appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard her case today. Ms. Abeles is represented by Nathan Lewin of Lewin & Lewin.