Federal lawsuit charges religious freedom commission with discriminating against Muslims

Some Washington figures prominently connected with promoting religious freedom overseas are accused in a federal lawsuit of discriminating against Muslims.

The lawsuit filed Thursday in federal court accuses members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom of reneging on hiring a Muslim lawyer in 2009 once they learned of her faith and her work advocating for Muslim-Americans.

It quotes staff as encouraging Safiya Ghori-Ahmad, during her short period working at the commission, to call in sick on the days that particular commissioners were in the office, to “downplay her religious affiliation” and to emphasize that she is a “mainstream and ‘moderate’ Muslim” who doesn’t cover her hair.

The lawsuit, which follows an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint that Ghori-Ahmad filed in 2010, lays blame on several longtime commissioners, including Nina Shea, an attorney and writer who focuses on religious freedom crises abroad, particularly the plight of Christian minorities. The suit quotes Shea as writing that “hiring a Muslim like Ms. Ghori-Ahmad to analyze religious freedom in Pakistan would be like ‘hiring an IRA activist to research the UK twenty years ago.’”

The allegations in the suit are the most explicit in a years-long series of allegations that commission leaders are biased against Muslims, specifically people associated with groups critical of U.S. foreign policy and who work for groups that fight anti-Muslim discrimination. Questions about the Ghori-Ahmad EEOC complaint — which commission lawyers had argued the body was exempt from — and how the commission uses its resources led some lawmakers last year to almost let USCIRF close for lack of reauthorization.