The U.S. Department of Justice is suing the City of Lansing, Michigan, for allegedly firing an Adventist Church member after she refused to work on Saturdays, claiming the city discriminated on the basis of religion in violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
According to the complaint, filed in the United States District Court for Western Michigan, Sylvia Coleman was hired by the city in 2018 as a detention officer. The application for the position stated that employees must be available for shifts any day of the week, but Coleman checked a box saying she wasn’t available on Saturdays. The hiring specialist handling the application also later admitted to being aware that Coleman wouldn’t be available Friday night through Saturday night.
Coleman was hired but scheduled for a Saturday shift during her first week on the job. She told her supervisor that as a Seventh-day Adventist who “observes the Sabbath from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset,” she could not work those given hours. Although she allegedly told supervisors that she could work extra non-Sabbath hours, Coleman was officially terminated after only three days.
In the United States, the 1977 Supreme Court case TWA v. Hardison sets a precedent that employers must make “reasonable accommodations” for employee religious beliefs, as long as those accommodations don’t cause an “undue hardship” for the employer. In Coleman’s case, the government alleges that the City of Lansing did too little to accommodate her Sabbath-keeping. “Lansing management did not meaningfully discuss potential accommodations prior to terminating Coleman’s employment,” the complaint reads.
The case is now in the hands of some of the government’s most prominent litigators.
“Religious discrimination and intolerance have no place in the workplace today,” Kristen Clarke, U.S. assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, said in a July 18 press release. “Employees should not have to choose between their religion and their livelihood, particularly when the employer can accommodate their religious beliefs.”
In a statement to The Detroit News on July 18, Scott Bean, communications director for the City of Lansing, said, “After reviewing this case, we find it to be inconsistent with the facts and the law.” The city’s legal counsel told WLNS-TV that Lansing has “fully cooperated” during an inquiry, which began with an investigation by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The city says it plans to fight the lawsuit. If the government wins its case, Lansing will be forced to pay Coleman restitution and implement new anti-discrimination policies.
In the years since TWA v. Hardison, Sabbath-related employment discrimination has ended up in the courts on multiple occasions. Patterson v. Walgreen Co., another case involving an Adventist Church member, was recommended to the Supreme Court by the Solicitor General of the United States (the court turned the case down in 2020).
As the “undue hardship” standard of existing precedent leaves much up to interpretation, the result of this latest case could be important both for Adventists across the United States and members of other denominations or religions.
Alex Aamodt is managing digital editor and the Roy Branson Investigative Reporter for Spectrum. You can contact him here.
Title image credit: Unsplash
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