Justices Reject Rule Protecting Employee From Sabbath Work

United Press International

State laws protecting people from being forced to work on their Sabbath unconstitutionally advance religion, the Supreme Court ruled today.

The justices, voting 8 to 1, said a Connecticut Sabbath observance statute was unconstitutional because its “unyielding weighing in favor of Sabbath observers over all other interests” resulted in “excessive entanglement of government with religion.”

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger said, “The Connecticut statute imposes on employers and employees an absolute duty to conform their business practices to the particular religious practices of the employee.

“The state thus commands that Sabbath religious concerns automatically control all secular interests at the work place,” the court said. “As such, the statute goes beyond having an incidental or remote effect of advancing religion.”


Defeat for Reagan

Only Justice William H. Rehnquist dissented.

The ruling was a defeat for the Reagan Administration, which had argued that no employee should have to choose between practicing his faith and working at a particular job.

The case was brought by the estate of a man, since deceased, who had been demoted for refusing to work on Sunday. Donald Thornton had challenged his demotion because Connecticut law required employers to give workers one day a week off to practice their religion.


The law since has been amended to allow all workers at least one day of rest.

At first, Thornton successfully challenged his demotion, winning reimbursement for lost pay and fringe benefits.

Advancement of Religion

But the state Supreme Court said the Sabbath law had religious overtones and advanced religion because it allowed religious people to designate their day off while denying that same right to those who do not observe a day of worship.


Thornton, a Presbyterian, worked from 1975 until 1980, as a department manager for Caldor Inc., a department store chain. When Thornton took the job, Caldor, in keeping with state “blue laws,” was not open on Sundays.

After the blue laws were amended, Caldor scheduled Thornton and other supervisors to work one Sunday a month. When Thornton refused to work on Sunday because it was his day of worship, Caldor offered him a transfer to a Massachusetts store that was closed on Sunday or a demotion with nearly a 50% pay cut.

Civil Rights Position

Thornton died in February, 1982, but his case was appealed by his estate.


Supporting the appeal, the Justice Department said the ruling conflicted with provisions in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibiting employers from punishing workers on the basis of their religious observances or practices.

In other action today, the court:

--Voting 5 to 4, upheld a Vermont Supreme Court ruling that private companies sued for libel do not enjoy the same constitutional protections as the news media to shield them from money damage awards.

--Sidestepped, on a 6-2 vote, the issue of whether refugees awaiting deportation hearings are protected by constitutional due process rights in a case involving thousands of Haitian boat people.


--Ruled 5 to 4 that the Internal Revenue Service can put a lien on a delinquent taxpayer’s joint account.