Human Rights Agencies Clarify High Court Ruling on Sabbath Observers

The state and local governmental human rights agencies, whose responsibilities include protection of the employment rights of Sabbath observers, have responded to a mildly restrictive U.S. Supreme Court ruling on that issue by reaffirming those employment rights, the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs (COLPA) reported today.

Sidney Kwestel, COLPA president, said the reaffirmation came in a resolution adopted unanimously by the International Association of Human Rights Agencies, at a convention in Baltimore, on July 12. The association represents human rights agencies at the state, county and municipal levels. Kwestel said several hundred delegates attended.

The Supreme Court ruling, handed down June 16, inferentially sustained for the first time the constitutionality of the federal law protecting job rights of Sabbath observers, Kwestel said. The ruling did somewhat restrict the right of observers to time off for Sabbath observance but, as Kwestel stressed, the ruling was in a “very narrow context” which was generally misunderstood by the public media.

The case involved a Transworld Airlines worker Larry Hardison, a member of the Worldwide Church of God, whose adherents observe the same Sabbath as Jews. Hardison was fired for refusing to work Saturdays after the International Association of Machinists refused to waive seniority rules for Hardison so he could be off on the Sabbath. Kwestel said the substance of the U.S. Supreme Court June ruling was that an employer cannot be expected to override a seniority agreement with his union to accommodate a Sabbath observer.

BASIS FOR THE CASE

Hardison sued under a 1972 amendment to the 1964 Civil Rights Act which provides an employer must seek to “reasonably accommodate” the religious practices of an observant employee or prospective employee, unless to do so would result in “undue hardship” for the employer’s business. The 19722 amendment was drafted by COLPA.

The importance of the human rights association resolution, Kwestel said, stemmed from the fact that while the Supreme Court decided the Hardison case in the context of a collective bargaining agreement the decision was widely reported in the media as having virtually gutted the general right to time off for religious observances.

Kwestel said the resolution took note of the limited nature of the Supreme Court June 16 ruling, referred to the dangers arising from erroneous interpretations of the ruling, and committed the human rights agencies to reaffirming the rights of religious workers to equal job opportunity. Kwestel said the resolution also asked affiliated member agencies to urge the cooperation of labor unions to help observers obtain their religious rights.

Kwestel said COLPA hoped the resolution would allay fears of observant workers that they would have to choose between their religion and their job. Equally important, he said, was that the resolution would alert employers to the fact that they remain bound by law to make “reasonable accommodation” to their employees’ religious needs.

He said this would be a great help to COLPA in its on going efforts to educate both observant workers and employers about the legal rights to religious observance in employment, noting that for the past 10 years, COLPA has been the principal non-governmental agency active in seeking enforcement of the provisions of federal and state laws protecting religiously observant workers against discrimination in employment.

Kwestel said the resolution was introduced at the Baltimore convention by Commissioner Werner H. Kramarsky of the New York State Division of Human Rights. Kwestel said COLPA had provided officials of the association with supporting memoranda for the resolution.

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