NEW YORK (Aug. 2)
Jewish organizations, representing almost the entire gamut of American Jewish life, have filed friends-of-the-court briefs with the United States Supreme Court in support of a Seventh Day Adventist in a case that is expected to have a major effect on employment protection for Jews who observe the Sabbath.
One brief was filed by Leo Pfeffer, special counsel to the American Jewish Congress; who will represent the Jewish organizations who are members of the Joint Advisory Committee of the. National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council and the Synagogue Council of America; another brief was filed by Nathan Lewin, who will represent the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs (COLPA). of which he is a vice-president.
The case involves the constitutionality and interpretation of a 1972 amendment to the U.S. Civil Rights Law which requires employers to “reasonably accommodate to an employe’s or prospective employe’s religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.”
The case arose when Paul Cummins, a member of the World-Wide Church of God, which observes the Sabbath on Saturday, was fired from his job as supervisor with the Parker Seal Co. of Bera, Ky. when two other supervisors complained that they had to work on Saturday while Cummins refused to do so.
ISSUES IN THE CASE
A federal district court ruled that under these circumstances, the employer was justified in firing Cummins on the grounds of “undue hardship.” The U.S. Court of Appeals reversed this finding holding that the “grumbling” of other employes does not constitute “undue hardship” and cannot be the basis for terminating an employe.
The court also rejected the employer’s claim that the “undue hardship” rule itself was unconstitutional because it “advances” religion in violation of the First Amendment ban on “establishment of religion” since it required employers to defer to their employe’s religious preference. The company then appealed to the Supreme Court.
According to the brief filed by Pfeffer, the Jewish organizations entered the case “not only because Mr. Cummins observes the seventh day of the week as his Sabbath but also because we believe that the principle of religious liberty is impaired if any person is penalized for adhering to any religious belief, so long as he neither interferes with the rights of others or endangers the public peace or security.”
In urging that the Supreme Court affirm the interpretation of the “undue hardship” rule by the Court of Appeals, Lewin noted that if the objections of other employes are now to be deemed a dispositive consideration then “no protection can ever be afforded to a conscientious Sabbath observer, for by definition, such religionists will be absent during the period of their Sabbath and if the business is ever in operation at those times, others will feel that they alone are being asked to work.” He added “it would be a curious rule of law that would make an employe’s civil rights depend on a favorable poll of his co-workers.”