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The Story Behind One of the Most Ironic Religious Freedom Lawsuits Ever Filed
Image: Marilyn Nieves
The Story Behind One of the Most Ironic Religious Freedom Lawsuits Ever Filed

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is being sued for religious discrimination. On Monday, Safiya Ghori-Ahmad's case against the USCIRF took another step closer to trial. It is now in the hands of a federal judge to decide whether to dismiss some of Ghori-Ahmad's complaint or allow the entire religious discrimination case to go to trial.

Ghori-Ahmad's case against the USCIRF goes back to 2009, but it literally took an act of Congress for it to become a federal lawsuit. Congress created the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in 1998 as a watchdog to investigate violations of religious liberty worldwide. But before last December, the USCIRF remained exempt from civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination based on religion. According to a lawsuit filed in June, the commission had a history of discrimination against Muslims, including retracting an employment offer to a researcher because of her Muslim faith and her work with a Muslim organization.

Safiya Ghori-Ahmad's Complaint

According to the lawsuit, Safiya Ghori-Ahmad applied for a position as a South Asia policy analyst at USCIRF. Ghori-Ahmad was one of 300 applicants for the position, and she was unanimously recommended for the job and approved by the executive director. Ghori-Ahmad earned a masters degree in international development and a law degree; has native-speaker proficiency in Urdi and Hindi and is proficient in Arabic (she was born in the U.S.); and worked on religious issues for the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC).

Ghori-Ahmad says in her complaint that she was warned by some members of the staff that her "background" would be controversial for a couple of the commissioners. USCIRF commissioners are nominated by the President and by leaders of both political parties in the House and the Senate. In 2009, commissioners represented leaders from Christian, Jewish, and Muslim organizations, including Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, and Imam Talal Y. Eid, founder of the Islamic Institute of Boston.

Four weeks after Ghori-Ahmad accepted the job offer and resigned from the MPAC, USCIRF rescinded its offer, giving Ghori-Ahmad only a temporary job without benefits and with reduced responsibilities.

Ghori-Ahmad's complaint charges that she lost the job because of pressure by commissioners, particularly Nina Shea, a civil rights lawyer who directs the Religious Freedom Center at the Hudson Institute. Ghori-Ahmad alleges that Shea objected to her because of her religion (she is Muslim), her work with MPAC on behalf of Muslims, and her ancestry (her family is from India, but she says USCIRF commissioners assumed she was of Pakistani descent).

"The whole theory of the case is wrong," Shea told Christianity Today. "I was not part of [the USCIRF] Executive Committee at the time. I would not have been able to 'force' the commissioners or staff to do anything."

Shea said that she opposed hiring Ghori-Ahmad; instead she supported two other Muslim candidates who Shea said were more qualified.

Shea said that she expressed opposition to Ghori-Ahmad not because of her religion but what Shea considered factual errors and a lack of objectivity in her writings. Shea was concerned by her writings on the Mumbai bombings, an article on the treatment of Islamic marriages in U.S. courts, and a blog posting where she referred to the case of Sami Al-Arian as a Justice Department "witch-hunt."

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