WASHINGTON -- Three organizations are urging the Supreme Court to uphold a Connecticut law that prohibits employers from firing workers who refuse to work on their chosen day of worship.
Officials of one of the groups, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the case, Thornton v. Caldor, Inc., could 'set major precedents in church-state law regarding Sabbath observances.'
At issue is a Connecticut law that exempts employees from working on their Sabbath. In a September 9, 1983 ruling, the Connecticut Supreme Court held that the state statute violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
The Supreme Court has agreed to review that decision and is expected to hear arguments during its October 1984 term.
Sabbath observance questions have emerged as one of the trickiest issues in church-state relations.
Although most Christian denominations celebrate Sunday as the Sabbath -- and most employers close their plants and factories on that day -- a number of groups, including the Seventh-day Adventist Church, as well as Jewish groups, observe Saturday, often a work day, as the Sabbath.
The Adventists are one of the three groups that have filed independent friend-of-the-court briefs on the case.
In the Connecticut case, however, the issue is not Saturday work but Sunday work.
The case, which first arose in 1979, involves Donald E. Thornton, a devout Presbyterian who died of a heart attack in 1982. He refused to work on Sundays at the Caldor Department store in Torrington, Conn., and invoked a Connecticut law that says, 'No person who states that a particular day of the week is observed as his Sabbath may be required by his employer to work on such days.'
The Connecticut court, in overturning the law as unconstitutional, said it came with 'religious strings attached.'.
But the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, in a brief it filed with the Supreme Court, said the Connecticut court erred in reaching such a conclusion.
On the contrary, it argued, the law is constitutional because it meets the traditional Establishment Clause tests: it does not advance religion, does not excessively entangle the state in religion and has a secular purpose.
Even if it did not meet those three criteria, the Jewish organization said, the legislation should be upheld under the other First Amendment clause, that protecting the right of free exercise of one's religious faith.
'The Connecticut law,' said Jeffrey Sinensky, director of the league's legal affairs department, 'represents a permissible accommodation between the two religion clauses of the First Amendment in manner by which the government neither advocates nor handicaps religion.'
Americans United, in their brief, said the Connecticut law is a 'protection for the Sabbath-keeping needs of an employee in the labor marketplace.'
'In this industrialized nation of ours where the majority dictates more and more the affairs of life, it is vital to protect the interests of those who march to the beat of a different drummer,' the brief said.
The Adventists said the Connecticut law was consistent with the Free Exercise clause and also noted that the court, in its controversial Pawtucket, Rhode Island nativity scene case handed down earlier this year, ruled that 'the Constitution 'affirmatively mandates accommodation, not merely tolerance, of all religions, and forbids hostility toward any.'
In their brief, the Adventists said that in a recent four-year period, the denomination has handled more than 800 employment problems involving Sabbath observances.