Supreme Court Indirectly Affirms Constitutionality of Laws Protecting Jobs of Sabbath Observers

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a ruling which inferentially sustained for the first time the constitutionality of a federal law protecting the job rights of Sabbath observers, held today that an employer cannot be expected to override a seniority agreement with his union to accommodate a Sabbath observer.

The case involved a Trans World Airlines worker, Larry Hardison, a member of the Worldwide Church of God, whose adherents observe the same Sabbath as do Jews. He was fired for refusing to work Saturdays after the International Association of Machinists refused to waive seniority rules on his behalf. Hardison sued under a 1972 amendment to the 1964 Civil Rights Act which provides that an employer must seek to “reasonably accommodate” to the religious practices of an observant employee or prospective employee, unless to do so would create “undue hardship” for the employer’s business. The amendment was prepared by the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs (COLPA).

FIRST TIME UNION RULES CONSIDERED

A federal District Court upheld Hardison’s dismissal on grounds that an employer could refuse to accommodate to an employee’s religious needs if that employer’s union contract provides for shift assignments on a seniority basis and if the union refused to waive such contract provisions to accommodate the observant employee. A federal Appeals Court reversed the ruling, and the airlines and the union then appealed to the Supreme Court. The court held, 7-2, that TWA was not guilty of religious discrimination for refusing to breach a union seniority system to give Hardison time off on his Sabbath.

(In New York, Sidney Kwestel, COLPA president, said the Supreme Court ruling did not deal directly with the constitutionality of the 1972 amendment but affirmed it indirectly in applying the provision exempting the airline on “undue hardship” grounds. Kwestel said that the impact of the “narrow” decision on Sabbath observer cases in lower courts will depend on how those courts will construe today’s ruling. Noting that this was the first time the Supreme Court had considered the role of union rules in such situations, Kwestel said, pending more extended analysis of the ruling, COLPA was confident that the job rights of Sabbath observers under the 1972 amendment would continue to be protected in the courts.)

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