Suit: Gwinnett school fired Muslim woman who asked for time to pray

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Suit: Gwinnett school fired Muslim woman who asked for time to pray

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Gwinnett County Public Schools headquarters. AJC File Photo.

A Gwinnett County custodian was accused of falsifying her job application and then fired after asking supervisors to accommodate her prayer schedule, a federal lawsuit alleges.

Penny Deams filed the lawsuit against Gwinnett County Public Schools on Monday. She previously worked at Ferguson Elementary School in Duluth.

Deams also previously filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint related to her termination, but the commission “found insufficient evidence to support her claim of discrimination,” said Sloan Roach, a spokeswoman for Gwinnett County Public Schools. The district declined to comment on the lawsuit itself, Roach said.

When she was asked to extend her work schedule from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m., she told supervisors that it would interfere with her daily prayer schedule, as her mosque closed before 10 p.m., the lawsuit says.  Deams is an observant Muslim, and it is customary for Muslims to pray multiple times each day. 

When Deams objected to the schedule change because of her prayer obligations, Principal Angelique Mitchell asked her about her religious activities, including when she prayed, how many times per day she prayed and what days she prayed, the lawsuit says. After that encounter, Deams says she went to the school’s human resource office to “inquire about her rights.” 

Deams noticed “significant, retaliatory changes” in the way she was treated by school management, the lawsuit says. A supervisor told Deams that Mitchell was “mad” at her for asking the HR department about her religious rights, according to the lawsuit. A human resources worker asked Deams when, where and how often she prayed, and requested a letter from Deams’ mosque explaining when Deams needed to pray, the lawsuit said. Deams did not object but mentioned she would consult an attorney about her religious rights, according to the suit. 

After Deams said she would speak with an attorney, the human resources worker began questioning Deams’ job application references and accused Deams of falsifying her job application, according to the lawsuit. One of Deams’ listed references had worked with Deams in DeKalb County, but no longer worked for the county at that point.

Deams was suspended from work for falsifying her application, which she denied doing, the lawsuit says.

The human resources worker told Deams she would have to provide a document from DeKalb County verifying her previous employment within two days, “knowing full well the process for obtaining the requested form takes at least four to five days,” the lawsuit says. A DeKalb County employee told Deams that it would take “several days” for her to receive the document.

Deams went to work the next day despite her suspension. When the two-day period was up and she did not have the employment verification letter from DeKalb County, Deams was fired for allegedly falsifying her application and for working while suspended. Deams “knew these reasons had a casual connection to her [religion] because they were never raised with her” before she asked for her schedule to accommodate her prayer obligations, the lawsuit says.

Deams is suing the school district for damages, back pay, interest, attorney’s fees, reinstatement or lost potential earnings and “further relief” to be determined at trial. 

Deams and her attorney declined to comment on the suit further at this time. 

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