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Sabbathkeeper Appeals to Supreme Court for Right to Worship

Sabbathkeeper Appeals to Supreme Court for Right to Worship

The Supreme Court of the United States is again being asked to decide whether ensuring the rights of Sabbathkeepers and other religious workers to employment is an “undue hardship” on employers. This time, advocates believe the appeals have a chance of winning.

The background: Like many people in 2016—and today—Mitche Dalberiste of Florida wanted a job. He applied for a position with GLE Associates, a Florida firm that provides worksite safety monitoring for various clients, including the Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station, an electrical power plant in Homestead, Florida.

Dalberiste, a Seventh-day Adventist who observes the Bible Sabbath, also known as Saturday, applied for and accepted employment with the firm, understanding that some weekend work would be involved. Consistent with the policies of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, he did not inform his employer of a need for Sabbath accommodation until after a job offer had been extended and accepted.

As his attorneys wrote in a petition to the high court, “in waiting until after he had been offered a position before telling GLE of his need for an accommodation, Dalberiste was acting consistently with the EEOC-approved practice typically followed by new employees who need a disability- or a religion-related accommodation.”

The petition notes Dalberiste tried to work with GLE to resolve the matter: “Dalberiste explained that he was still available to work weekends, namely ‘after sunset’ on Saturday, ‘before sunset’ on Friday, and ‘any time on Sunday.’ … Despite this, GLE’s president rescinded the offer without either analyzing the harm the accommodation would cause or talking further with Dalberiste about how GLE might accommodate him.”

Woman Praying

Many Sabbathkeepers can identify with this situation: They want to work for a business and make a contribution but also want to be faithful to God and their own conscience. 

The other case under appeal to the Supreme Court is Small v. Memphis Light, Gas & Water, in which a utility company worker who is a Jehovah’s Witness was refused a job reassignment that would accommodate his religious duties as an elder in a local congregation. For more than ten years as an electrician with the utility company, Small was able to attend worship on Wednesday evenings and Sundays as well as occasional Saturday events without problem.

After sustaining an injury, however, he was unable to continue working as an electrician. Consequently, the utility “repeatedly offered Small jobs that did not allow him to attend his worship services, while refusing to make accommodations that would have solved that problem without any undue hardship,” his attorneys wrote in petitioning the Court.

No One Should Have to Choose

While the two cases might not seem to have much in common—different denominations, different accommodations, different employee histories—the principle is the same, and it’s an important one. In America, no one should have to choose between their job and their faith. Yet Americans from all walks of life are having to do just that.

At the heart of the issue is the outcome from a single case: the 1977 Supreme Court ruling in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, which set the precedent for such cases. In Hardison, an airplane maintenance clerk lost his job over his employer’s “undue hardship” in granting a Sabbath accommodation. In other words, Hardison lost because the Supreme Court ruled that accommodating—or even attempting to accommodate—an employee’s request for time off due to religious observance would cause the employer’s business to suffer, causing the employer “undue hardship.”

The point of contention was the definition of “undue hardship.” Even trivial burdens placed upon the employer to accommodate an employee’s faith was considered “undue hardship.” For more than four decades since, companies have invoked the Hardison ruling to turn down such kinds of religious requests and to turn away otherwise qualified job applicants.

It is the Hardison ruling that these two current cases, Small and Dalberiste, are looking to overturn. According to Becket, a public-interest law firm that specializes in religious liberty cases and is representing Dalberiste, a victory in this would reverberate extensively throughout the religious liberty community “and vindicate the right of Americans of all faiths to live and work according to their religious beliefs.”

Take, for example, Diamond Powell, a Muslim who manages a McDonald’s at Baltimore-Washington International Airport and who was denied breaks for prayers mandated by her faith. Her lawsuit claims a superior told her, “Prayer is the most important thing to you, but money is the most important thing to me.”

Such prejudices in the workplace are more difficult to fight because of the Supreme Court’s limited interpretation of the Civil Rights Act. 

“The current situation is untenable for people whose faith extends beyond attending weekend worship services,” said attorney Michael Peabody, president of Founders’ First Freedom, an advocacy group that filed a brief with the Supreme Court in support of Dalberiste. “If a person is serious about keeping their faith, under the current standards, employers do not even have to pretend to make an attempt to provide an accommodation. The way some courts see it, an employer doesn’t have to try to accommodate a person’s religious observances or practices. They just have to claim that it is hypothetically impossible to provide an accommodation and that’s it.”

The Supreme Court is expected to take up the Small and Dalberiste petitions in late September. Advocates have high hopes that these rulings will bring the long-sought-after change.

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