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Michael Kessler Michael Kessler is managing director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, a visiting assistant professor of Government, and an adjunct professor of...

Ethical values, based on religion and reason, shape the kinds of law and policy citizens desire to govern their community. At the same time, the law shapes how we become moral persons and the kinds of communities we hope to build. Law, morality, and religion are intertwined. Yet ideologically-charged policy debates, the grittiness of political compromise, and the impersonal rule of law often don't correlate with--and can even damage--our deepest religious and moral commitments. We talk about law achieving a just order, but we too often struggle to develop notions of justice that rise beyond "efficiency" measured by markets and the "balancing" of preferences. Just Law and Religion rejects the cynic's reduction of law and politics to an amoral arena of clashing interests. It recognizes the crucial role of law and policy in achieving social stability, but focuses on how fundamental rights and moral values both shape and are shaped by contemporary legal and political institutions. Just Law and Religion will take the "moral temperature" of current events and issues across a vast array of political institutions, law, and culture in order to comprehend the ethical stakes, and the promise and perils, of our common life. Just Law and Religion asserts that law and politics can only be âœjust❠when they concede there is more to human value and meaning than legal and political institutions can achieve.

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No Sabbath rest for job weary?

April 2, 2010

With the economic downturn and massive job losses, it seems many Americans have no sympathy for employees requesting religious accommodations for Sabbath observance. Comments on a recent news story about an EEOC lawsuit against Lowe's for failing to allow a Baptist to not work on Sundays almost all tilt toward hostility to the man's religious beliefs. Hard times seem to make for hardened hearts.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission press release, the lawsuit alleges that:

Lowe's Home Center refused to accommodate a current employee of its Morristown, Tenn., store after he advised Lowe's of his sincere religious belief as a Baptist against working on the Sabbath, Sunday. The employee submitted two written requests for a religious accommodation not to be scheduled for work on Sunday. Lowe's ignored the request for two months, the EEOC said, and then denied the request because Lowe's said that it might create a hardship on other employees who might like to have Sundays off. After this employee and others were reduced from full-time to part-time status, Lowe's refused to allow the employee to apply for open full-time positions because of his sincerely held religious belief against working on the Sabbath.

The law in this area is fairly straightforward. Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits employers who are subject to the law from discriminating against individuals because of their religion--hiring, termination, and promotion may not negatively or positively account for religious belief or practice. Title VII further requires employers to reasonably accommodate the sincerely held religious beliefs and practices of an employee so long as that accommodation will not create an "undue hardship" on the employer. As the EEOC set forth:

Religious discrimination violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for the sincerely held religious beliefs of their employees as long as no undue hardship is posed against the business. The EEOC filed suit after first attempting to reach a voluntary settlement. The lawsuit asks the court to issue an injunction prohibiting this sort of discrimination in the future and enjoin Lowe's from continuing its policy and practice of refusing to provide a reasonable accommodation to its employees based on sincerely held religious beliefs. The EEOC also asked the court to order Lowe's to reinstate the employee to full-time status, providing the requested accommodation. Further, the EEOC asked the court to order the company to provide back pay and compensatory damages for his non-pecuniary losses, including emotional and psychological harm, as well as punitive damages.

The trick of these kinds of challenges to purported employer discrimination is in characterizing what constitutes a "reasonable accommodation" and what kinds of accommodations might turn into an "undue hardship" on the employer. The case law is fascinating--a good overview can be found by perusing Religion Clause for employment related cases. The EEOC's policy overview includes references to the major cases.

In terms of maximizing religious freedom amidst a workforce of diverse and plural modes of religious expression, this law strikes a sensible balance. It is a wise legal policy to ensure that citizens are not forced to give up sincerely held religious beliefs in order to satisfy employment requirements, when and if the employer can rearrange those requirements without incurring more than minimal costs.

The online public who comments on news stories seems to disagree, vigorously. I perused a fair number of online postings of this story and found the overwhelming consensus to be disdain for the man's choices. There are the typical quibbles over Biblical interpretation of exactly which day is the Sabbath, and those wondering if the employee rigidly keeps other requirements of Biblical law, like Kosher laws. But most of the comments imply the man is using religion to be lazy and take Sundays off--a day that many want off for family activities. Here's a choice selection from the Knoxville News Sentinel (all grammar and spelling mistakes and other incoherences are copied from the comments!):

Commenter "Brassmirror" asserts the danger of a slippery slope if this person's personal preferences are accommodated: "so what are they going to do when EVERY employee suddenly wants sunday's off too? no, you can't give one person a special schedule because then you have to give everyone a special schedule or they will claim some sort of favortism, prejudice. you have to treat them all the same. if you are open 7 days a week, then everyone has to take turns working on weekends. if you don't like it, then don't work there."

Commenter "bohica" wrote: "If he wants Sunday's off, might as well give hime everyday off. I'm sure there is someone out there willing to take his job."

This sentiment was echoed by "Hermione" who wrote "This man should be grateful that he even has a job. Course, once he sues and gets the big bucks he thinks he is going to get, then he will never have to work again. If I was Lowe's I would have kept him on for a month or so and then document every minute he was late, every action he did that was not within store policy, and then I would have fired him."

And then commenter "T4vols" asserted this interesting claim, that the Baptist man seeking accommodation may be trying to make a point in seeking the same accommodation that is perceived to be given to others of a non-Christian background: "Maybe most of you are missing the real point here. Maybe this man is fed up with all the rights and special circumstances made for all other religions that he is actually standing up for christianity!"

On the whole, the commenters across this and other news stories suggest people should be cautious about asking for religious accommodations--there are plenty of others willing to take the positions. I wonder if this sentiment reflects unease with worker protections in general, anxiety over the job losses and economic uncertainty, or prejudice against religious people who request accommodations for sincerely held religious belief. Perhaps the hostility reflects a combination of all of these? What are your thoughts?