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Protection of Job Rights for Observant Workers Seen Assured by Series of Federal Court Rulings

The decision of another federal appeals court upholding the constitutionality of a federal law requiring employers and labor unions to accommodate the religious needs of employes — the sixth such federal appeals court ruling — probably means that the constitutionality of that law is not likely to be challenged in the Supreme Court, a key official of a Jewish civil rights agency declared today.

The protection under law of the religious rights of observant Jewish employes is a matter of critical importance to the Orthodox Jewish community.

Dennis Rapps, executive director of the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs (COLPA), in discussing the latest ruling by a federal court of appeals, noted that the Supreme Court has never ruled directly on the constitutionality of the accommodations law, a 1972 amendment to the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The amendment, which COLPA worked out with the cooperation of Congressional leaders, requires employers to make “reasonable accommodation” to the religious needs of observant employes, except when doing so would impose “undue hardship” on the employer.

LAW HAS HELPED SABBATH OBSERVERS

Howard Zuckerman, COLPA president, noted that the law has helped thousands of Sabbath observers to leave work early on Fridays in the winter and to absent themselves from work on Saturdays and Jewish holidays without suffering threats of dismissal.

Zuckerman noted that the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is based in Cincinnati, had also ruled that an employer cannot claim as an automatic defense against a charge of violation of the religious accommodation law that such an accommodation will make the employer liable to a lawsuit by its employes’ union for breach of contract.

The case, though it involved a Michigan firm, Essex International, Inc. went to the Sixth Circuit Court on appeal from a district court ruling, because the jurisdiction of the Cincinnati based federal appeals court includes Michigan, Rapps said.

THE ISSUE INVOLVED

At issue was a charge of job discrimination filed by Doris McDaniel, a member of the Seventh Day Adventist church, whose adherents observe Saturday as their Sabbath. Rapps said a tenet of that faith is that adherents may neither belong to a labor union nor provide a union with financial support, such as dues payment.

Ms. McDaniel’s employer, Essex international, has a collective bargaining agreement with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), which has a union security clause. Ms. McDaniel was fired by the company at IAM’s request for refusing either to join the union or to pay union dues though she had offered to pay the equivalent of the dues to a “nonsectarian, non-union national charity.”

After being fired, she sued both the firm and the union, charging a violation of the 1972 amendment. In response, the union cited the problem of “free riders,” and contended that allowing Ms. McDaniel to be employed by Essex, without having to pay dues to the union, would be an “undue hardship.” The IAM insisted it would enforce the union security provisions of its contract with the company.

The company contended it would face a certain lawsuit by the union if it did not fire Ms. McDaniel and that it would thus suffer an “undue hardship.” Both the company and the union also claimed that since, in the McDaniel case, the “reasonable accommodation” law mandated special treatment of an employee based on religion, that application was contrary to the First Amendment ban on an “establishment of religion.”

The federal district court found in favor of the plaintiff and the company and the union appealed the ruling to the Sixth Circuit Court. At that stage of the litigation. COLPA filed a friend-of-the-court brief, along with the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, in support of the law’s constitutionality. The brief was drafted by Daniel Chazin, COLPA general counsel. With Chazin on the brief were Rapps, and Justin Finger and Jeffrey Sinensky of the ADL.

A friend-of-the-court brief in behalf of the constitutionality of the law was filed separately by the American Jewish Congress.

RULING BY THE COURT

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the loss of Ms. McDaniel’s dues was not an “undue hardship” and that the union’s complaint about the “free rider” problem was merely “speculative.”

The court also dismissed the company’s claim, ruling that since the company knew about the union’s “complete failure to attempt any accommodation” to the plaintiff’s religious needs,” the employer was not justified in acceding to the request” of the union that the plaintiff be fired.

The court also reaffirmed that the “reasonable accommodation” requirement, although it provided for different treatment of employes based on religion, was not an impermissible preference for religion, since it was designed and operates only to promote equal job opportunity.

Rapps said that while the Supreme Court “is ordinarily the final arbiter of constitutional questions in our legal system, the Sixth Circuit Court decision is the latest of six appellate court rulings, all of which have held that the ‘reasonable accommodations’ measure is constitutional.”

Rapps added that, as a general rule, the Supreme Court will not accept a case for review and definitive decision unless there is a dispute on such a question among the federal circuit appeals courts. He said there are 11 such appeals courts in the federal court system.

Rapps pointed out that the constitutional issue did come before the Supreme Court on three occasions, although in each of those cases, other legal issues also were involved. In two of the cases, he said, the Supreme Court split, four to four, which in effect affirmed the lower court decisions upholding the constitutionality of the reasonable accommodations law.

However, the COLPA official pointed out, while the split rulings sustained the rulings of the appellate courts that the law is constitutional, this was not a decision by the Supreme Court that the law is constitutional. At the Supreme Court level, the decision on the constitutionality of the reasonable accommodations law remains unresolved. But the unbroken succession of six federal appellate court rulings upholding that law means that the victims of violations of the law can challenge such violations with confidence of the law’s protection, Rapps said.

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