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An appeals court ordered state labor officials to reconsider forcing a Muslim woman to repay unemployment benefits after she turned down work to be able to make the pilgrimage to Mecca. Wisconsin’s 4th District Court of Appeals on Thursday reversed a finding by the state Labor and Industry Review Commission, which ruled that Salwa Rashad didn’t have to undertake the hajj immediately and could have accepted work. Every able-bodied Muslim is required to make the pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca in Saudi Arabia at least once in their lifetime if they can afford it. The appeals court ordered the commission to reconsider its ruling in light of the First Amendment, which protects freedom of religion. At stake for Rashad are unemployment benefits. She isn’t eligible for them if she turns down a job without good cause. The case began in December 2002, when Rashad was working as a part-time instructor at Madison, Wis., Area Technical College. According to the labor commission’s decision, the school offered Rashad another part-time teaching position for the spring 2003 semester. But Rashad told the school she planned to make a three-to-five week trip to Mecca then. She offered to find a substitute while she was gone, but the school gave the job to someone else. Rashad testified before the labor commission that she must make a trip to Mecca at least once in her life if she can, and she must make it during a specific lunar month, which in 2003 fell in late January and early February. The commission found Rashad was not required to make the trip in 2003, and said she had to repay $3,750 (euro2,994) in unemployment benefits. Rashad unsuccessfully appealed that finding in circuit court, arguing that she did not reject that job and that her under Islam, she is required to make the hajj when she is able. The first time she could afford to go was in the spring of 2003, she said. Rashad then appealed on constitutional grounds, arguing that the commission’s decision violated the First Amendment — a claim the commission disputed. The commission also questioned Rashad’s motivation for making the trip, arguing that she also planned to visit her son in Egypt while making the pilgrimage. The appellate court ruled that the labor commission produced no evidence to support that Rashad did not have to make the trip in 2003. It referred the case to the commission, ordering the body to consider constitutional conflicts and clarify Rashad’s potential personal motivations for making the trip or refusing the job offer. Rashad’s attorney, Michele Peters, and the Labor and Industry Review Commission both declined to comment. Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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