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Jewish Organizations’ Legal Directors Welcome Ruling in Florida Sabbath Case

Legal affairs directors of major U.S. Jewish organizations expressed pleasure and relief Thursday at the decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that prohibits states from denying unemployment benefits to employees dismissed for declining to work on the Sabbath.

The Court ruled 8-1 Wednesday in favor of Paula Hobbie, who had been fired from her job at a jewelry store in Winter Park, Fla, for refusing to work on Friday evenings and Saturdays because of her Seventh Day Adventist religious beliefs.

Because she changed religions after she was hired, the State of Florida considered her subsequent refusal to work to be misconduct, which then disqualified her from unemployment benefits. A federal court had ruled in favor of Florida.

The American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress and Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith all had filed amicus briefs in support of Hobbie.

“The Supreme Court’s 8-1 decision is a major victory for religious liberty for all,” said Samuel Rabinove, AJCommittee legal director. “Florida’s refusal to award unemployment benefits to Miss Hobbie was a violation of the ‘Free Exercise Clause’ of the First Amendment.”

That clause prohibits Congress from making a law “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion.

Marc Stern, AJCongress legal affairs director, echoed Rabinove’s views and pointed out that the decision reaffirms two recent Court decisions. The Court ruled in Estate of Thornton V. Caldor (1985) and Bowen v. Roy (1986) that accommodations such as shifting public school graduations to avoid conflicting with Sabbath are not government establishment of religion, which the First Amendment prohibits.

In addition, he said the decision places the “Free Exercise Clause on very firm ground.”

Jill Kahn, ADL’s assistant legal affairs director, also was “extremely pleased.” She said the decision was significant in that it reaffirmed two cases that prohibited denial of unemployment benefits because of religious beliefs. Sherber v. Verner (1963) and Thomas v. Review Board of the Indiana Employment Security Division (1981).

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