News Analysis: Sabbath-Case Win Latest in Series of Victories, Reversing Decades-Old Precedent

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News Analysis: Sabbath-Case Win Latest in Series of Victories, Reversing Decades-Old Precedent

PC: The Denver federal courthouse / via Wikimedia Commons

As cold waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country. (Proverbs 25:25, KJV)

 

Clearfield, Utah, some 30 minutes north of Salt Lake City, may seem like “a far country” to some readers, but the “good news” recently delivered by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, based in Denver, should refresh many a thirsty Seventh-day Adventist soul.

 

On January 17, the Court issued a decision in favor of Richard Tabura and Guadalupe Diaz, who had worked at a Kellogg USA manufacturing plant in Clearfield, sending their case back to a lower court for retrial. The two had asked the company to accommodate their religious observance of the Bible Sabbath, which runs from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday.

 

Kellogg USA terminated the two employees in 2012 because they violated a company mandate for Saturday work.

 

As the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists summarized in a news article,

In 2011, Kellogg increased production and implemented a new work scheduling program known as “continuous crewing.” This program created four separate, rotating shifts in which employees were to work approximately two Saturdays a month — 26 Saturdays a year. While both plaintiffs made attempts to use paid days off and work swaps with other employees they eventually were assessed too many absence points within a 12-month period and, after what Kellogg describes as “progressive-discipline measures” were exhausted, were terminated.

 

Earlier, reporting on the appellate case made by the Church, the NAD quoted Todd McFarland, associate general counsel for the General Conference, as saying,

It’s a “cold comfort” to an Adventist to say, “You only have to break half the Sabbaths.” If you don’t have to eliminate the conflict, then that does no good. So this [case] is important to people of faith about what’s required from employment to accommodate Sabbath.

 

The Court of Appeals found that Kellogg USA did not make a “reasonable accommodation” for its employees with the work rules and could have found other means of ensuring continuous production that respected the workers’ religious freedom rights.

 

The January 17 decision means that Kellogg USA and the fired employees will head back to the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah to retry the case. It is, of course, within the realm of possibility that Kellogg USA will seek a settlement in advance of a retrial, although this is speculative at this point.

 

The latest NAD report notes an irony in the case sent back by the Tenth Circuit:

Kellogg, a food manufacturing company, was founded as the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company in 1906 by Will Keith Kellogg and John Harvey Kellogg. John Harvey, at the time, was a Seventh-day Adventist and director of the Battle Creek Sanitarium, owned and operated by the Adventist Church. The sanitarium’s operation was based on the church’s health principles, which include a healthful diet, regimen of exercise, proper rest, and abstinence from alcohol and tobacco. John Harvey eventually turned away from church beliefs, espousing what many believe was a form of pantheism.

 

Another irony: The Tenth Circuit heard the case, and issued its ruling, in the Byron White Federal Courthouse in Denver, named for the author of a 1977 Supreme Court ruling that disfavored Sabbath-keeping employees, as noted below.

 

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it is unlawful for an employer “to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” That translates to an employer having to provide “reasonable accommodation” for religious practices, such as the wearing of faith-mandated head coverings or for specific days off required for religious observance. In 1967, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, issued guidelines requiring such accommodation unless it imposed “undue hardship” on an employer; 1972 legislative amendments to Title VII affirmed this position.

 

The first major court case involving Sabbath observance was in 1977, when the Supreme Court of the United States sided with Trans World Airlines (TWA) against employee Larry Hardison, a member of the Worldwide Church of God, who was fired for refusing to work on Saturdays. In a majority opinion authored by then-Justice Byron White, the Court found TWA was only obligated to bear a “de minimis” (minimal) cost to accommodate Hardison.

 

According to the majority opinion, authored by Justice White,

…to require TWA to bear additional costs when no such costs are incurred to give other employees the days off that they want would involve unequal treatment of employees on the basis of their religion.

 

In more recent years, however, there have been a number of EEOC-won victories for workers seeking accommodation for Sabbath observance or other religious observances. According to the Commission, these included two related to members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church:

 

  • EEOC v. Maita Chevrolet Geo (N.D. Cal. No. 4:11-cv-4815-JSC; transferred to E.D. Cal. No. 2:11-cv-03133-MCE-KJN) (resolved on 9/25/2013). The EEOC filed suit under Title VII alleging that Maita failed to accommodate Charging Party’s religious practices and instead harassed, disciplined, and discharged him because of his religion, Seventh-day Adventist. Charging Party, a Nigerian immigrant and a Seventh-day Adventist, worked for Maita as a car salesman from April 2005 until he was fired in May 2007. A key tenet of his faith is to observe the Sabbath by refraining from secular work from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. The EEOC alleged that Maita persistently scheduled Charging Party to work shifts during his Sabbath despite numerous requests from him and his pastor for an accommodation due to his religious practices and beliefs. The Commission also alleged that Charging Party was harassed, denied work on Sundays, and ultimately disciplined and discharged for taking leave to observe his Sabbath. Maita agreed to pay $158,000 to settle the case and entered into a two year consent decree requiring it to revise its personnel manual to include a section on reasonable accommodation of religious beliefs and practices, train its management on religious discrimination, and provide regular reports regarding religious accommodation requests or complaints of religious discrimination to the EEOC.”

 

  • “EEOC v. Boca Group LLC, d/b/a Menorah House (S.D. Fla. Nos. 9:11-cv-80825-KLR and 9:12-cv-80172-KLR) (consolidated cases) (resolved on 3/9/12). The EEOC filed two lawsuits under Title VII alleging that Menorah House denied a religious accommodation to two certified nursing assistants who were Seventh-Day Adventists and fired them because of their religious beliefs. As part of their religious beliefs and practices, Charging Parties’ do not perform work on the Sabbath, (i.e. from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday). Menorah House had accommodated the two women’s religious practices for more than ten years, until management instituted a policy requiring all employees to work on Saturdays, regardless of their religious beliefs. The EEOC alleged both Charging Parties informed Menorah House of their religious beliefs and practices and requested a reasonable accommodation. The Charging Parties did not report to work on Saturday as scheduled and Menorah House subsequently terminated them. Menorah House agreed to pay $125,000 to settle the case and entered into a three year consent decree requiring it to revise its religious discrimination policies, conduct anti-discrimination training with an emphasis on accommodating religion in the workplace to all employees and to post anti-discrimination notices at all of its facilities.”

 

Alonzo T. Jones / via Wikimedia Commons

Congratulations are due to Alan Reinach of the Pacific Union Conference’s Church-State Council, along with outside attorneys Erik Strindberg and Matt Harrison of Strindberg & Scholonick, all of whom argued the appeal before the Tenth Circuit.

It’s also worth noting the victories for Sabbath-keeping employees have spanned the current and most recent U.S. administrations, each representing different political parties.

As far as religious accommodation goes, it appears that the support for individuals who wish to work for a given employer and follow their conscience about days of religious observance, spans the political spectrum. Advocates of religious freedom in the United States–going back to pioneering Adventist religious liberty advocate Alonzo Trévier Jones–likely would not want to see it any other way.

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About the author

Mark A. Kellner

Mark A. Kellner is a journalist living in Salt Lake City, Utah. From February 2014 to September 2015, he was a national reporter for the Deseret News, and has written about issues of faith and freedom since 1983. Mark also served as News Editor for the Adventist Review and Adventist World for seven years.