Orthodox Jewish woman in Virginia suing former employer for Passover sanctions

(JTA) – An Orthodox Jewish woman has gone to a U.S. appeals court in her lawsuit against a former employer with claims she was punished for taking off time for the Passover holiday.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and the American Jewish Committee each filed a friend of the court brief on Tuesday with the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, on behalf of Susan Abeles, who retired involuntarily in 2013 after working for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority for 26 years. She was accused of being absent without leave on the last two days of Passover that year and suspended for five days without pay.

A federal district court in Virginia ruled against Abeles on April 1 on her lawsuit filed in May 2015.

In the suit, Abeles says she requested and received time off each year to observe Passover in accordance with her Orthodox Jewish beliefs and that in 2013, like every other year, she followed proper procedure, including giving ample notice and several reminders.

Upon returning to work, the suit claims, her superiors accused her of failing to follow proper protocol for obtaining leave and sanctioned her, which led to her early retirement.

Passover is observed for eight days each spring, and Jewish religious law prohibits work during the first two and last two days.

The airport authority argued that it is not strictly a government entity and thus does not have to follow the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which prevents religious discrimination in the workplace.

The suit asks the court to order the airports authority to rescind the absent without leave designation and remove all references to it from her personnel file, and calls for the authority to reinstate Abeles to her position if she so chooses. It also asks for a financial reward to cover lost income, lost pension income due to the early retirement and remuneration for pain and suffering.

“It takes some chutzpah for the government to punish a Jewish woman for celebrating Passover,” said Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel at the Becket Fund. “That didn’t work out so well for Pharaoh.”

“This case is just one more example of the rampant anti-Semitism that Orthodox Jews face every day,” he said.

Abeles is being represented by Nathan Lewin of Lewin & Lewin in Washington.

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