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High Court Rules Unconstitutional Law Protecting Worker Who Observes Sabbath

The Supreme Court ruled today by a 7-2 vote that a Connecticut state law protecting the right of employes to absent themselves from work on their Sabbath is unconstitutional. But a Jewish expert on such laws said here that the ruling seemed unlikely to affect similar laws protecting observant Jews in other states.

Dennis Rapps, executive director of the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs (COLPA), provided that analysis to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. COLPA and the American Jewish Congress acted as attorneys for Donald Thornton, then a store manager for one of the Caldor chain stores in Connecticut. The Jewish organizations entered the case when the state Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in 1983.

Rapps said the Jewish organizations entered the case at that point, seeking a Supreme Court ruling because, though Thornton was a Presbyterian and had sought to be off work on Sundays, the issue involved similar laws in many states under which Jews have such protection.

The American Jewish Committee participated by filing a friend of the court brief in support of the COLPA-AJCongress action.

LAW DID NOT REQUIRE ‘REASONABLE ACCOMMODATION’

Rapps said the Supreme Court, in its ruling today, focussed on the “absolute nature” of the Connecticut law, meaning that the Connecticut law had no provission, as do all other such state laws, requiring the employer to try to make “reasonable accommodation” to such requests for Sabbath absences. Under that clause, an employer may require a Sabbath observer to work on his or her Sabbath if his or her absence would create severe hardship for the employer’s business.

Rapps said the Surpreme Court, in its ruling today, had displayed “an unfortunate lack of sympathy” for the protection of the rights of religious minorities. “We believe that a statute designed to permit conscientious believers to avoid having to choose between their religion and their livelihood is constitutional” he said.

Rapps said that, in focussing on the “absolute nature” of the Connecticut law, the high court left intact the standard of reasonable accomodation for religious observance provided in a 1972 amendment to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. COLPA prepared the amendment, which was passed by Congress and signed by then President Nixon in 1972.

The COLPA official also contended that “from a strictly legal standpoint,” the Supreme Court was in error in focussing on the “absolute nature” of the Connecticut law. Rapps said the sole issue the Supreme Court should have considered was whether or not the state law constituted an “impermissible preference” for religion. The state Supreme Court held such an “impermissible preference” was manifested by the state statute and ruled it unconstitutional for that reason.

The COLPA expert said that the ruling of the Supreme Court today should not have any adverse affect on such laws protecting Sabbath observers, Jewish and non-Jewish, from working on their Sabbaths. He said the Supreme Court emphasis on the state law’s “absolute nature” might even strengthen the perception of the idea that a Sabbath protection law with an element of “reasonable accommodation was in fact constitutional.

He said the Supreme Court has never ruled on the issue of “reasonable accommodation.”

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