Menu JTA Search

Jewish and Non-jewish Sabbath Observers Concerned over Misinterpretation of Sabbath Law

SIGN UP FOR THE JTA DAILY BRIEFING

An Orthodox-or-jented Jewish legal aid agency here has received hundreds of telephone calls, most of them from the New York City area, from Jewish and non-Jewish Sabbath observers whose employers had indicated to them they would no longer accommodate their Sabbath time off requests.

Dennis Rapps, executive director of the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs (COLPA), said such employers had misinterpreted a recent Supreme Court decision outlawing a Connecticut State law requiring employers to grant religious time off, without exeptions, to observant employes.

The development led the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to make a policy statement reaffirming the rights of Sabbath observers to an accommodation to their religious needs by their employers. The EEOC statement declared that the Supreme Court decision in the Connecticut case did not affect protection for Sabbath observers.

The EEOC enforces the anti-discrimination provisions of the 1964 Federal Civil Rights Act, including the Sabbath rights protection amendment. An EEOC spokesman said the policy statement was made to resolve issues about implications of the Supreme Court decision, handed down last June 26.

The Court held that the Connecticut law was absolute and did not permit taking into account the impact a religious employe’s Sabbath observance could have on his or her employer’s business. Two justices, in a conurring opinion, said the decision did not invalidate the federal law requirement of reasonable accommodation, which includes consideration of possible “undue hardship” on an employer’s business.

CONFUSION COMPOUNDED

Nevertheless, Rapps said, a number of employers, assuming that the Connecticut decision meant invalidation of all Sabbath protection laws, federal and state, began indicating to their employes and prospective employes, that they would no longer accommodate their Sabbath requirements, citing the Supreme Court decision.

In some cases, Rapps said, that action was taken by lower level management executives, such as personnel department directors, presumably not informed of the complexities of the federal-state accommodations laws.

Rapps said that, in a notice issued September 25, the EEOC had advised field office personnel to continue processing complaints under existing procedures.

Connecticut adopted a replacement law last April which required employers to make such accommodation unless this would have an adverse impact on their business operations, bringing Connecticut Sabbath protection law into conformity with the federal and other state laws.

Rapps said the EEOC statement’s purpose was not so much to get EEOC branch offices advised about the current state of Sabbath protection law as it was to have a public agency, charged with enforcement of civil rights laws, to be on public record that federal protection for Sabbath observers continued. Rapps said COLPA brought the problem to the attention of the EEOC.

The EEOC has published a compliance manual and distributed it to thousands of employers throughout the country. The EEOC statement on Sabbath protection was in the form of an update, Rapps said. Each time the EEOC issues an update, it is sent to employers to incorporate in their compliance manuals.

Reporting that COLPA had received more than 300 telephone calls from worried Sabbath observers since the June 26 Supreme Court ruling, Rapps said most of the complains have been from observant Jews, and some from Seventh Day Adventists, who observe their Sabbath on Saturdays, and members of the World Wide Church of God.

DEALING WITH A COMPLAINT

Rapps said that COLPA was gratified by the EEOC statement which he said reflected a sensitivity by EEOC chairman Clarence Thomas for the religious rights of minorities. Rapps declared that, in response to a telephone complaint on the problem, COLPA sens the caller a packet containing the federal accommodation law and the particular state law.

The caller is advised to go back to his or her employer, show the employer the documents on Sabbath observer protection rights and inform the employer that he or she is wrong on the matter. Rapps said that if the caller then turns again to COLPA, that agency calls the employer.

If the problem cannot be resolved through such communications, COLPA may consider the caller’s problem a matter for COLPA investigation and possible legal action. He added, this had not yet happened.

Rapps noted that while lower federal courts have repeatedly held that the law — Section 70IJ, Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as amended in 1972 — is constitutional, the Supreme Court has never ruled on the section’s constitutionality. He noted that Nathan Lewin of Washington, COLPA vice president, had written the 1972 amendment.

NEXT STORY