On Law

Jewish World Review August 17, 2001 /28 Menachem-Av, 5761

Saturday Sabbath 'non-denominational' Christian scores legal victory for minority religions

By Chris Leppek

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- A Pueblo, Colorado man who was found by a federal jury last month to be a victim of religious discrimination said he hopes his legal victory will work to protect the rights of other religious minorities, especially those who -- like himself -- observe the Sabbath on Saturday instead of Sunday.

Don Reed, who worked for years as an air traffic controller for the Federal Aviation Administration at the Pueblo airport, was fired because he refused to work on Saturdays, after his supervisors denied him permission to take Saturdays off.

Reed is a member of a "non-denominational" Christian group which, like Jews, marks the Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.

Testimony in the US District Court trial that concluded in Denver last month revealed that one of Reed's supervisors called Reed's beliefs a "religion of convenience," not of genuine faith, and that supervisors rejected several compromise work schedules that Reed had proposed.

After failing to report to work for six consecutive Saturdays in 1995, Reed was fired by the FAA. He sued the federal government shortly thereafter with the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Mark Silverstein, legal director of the Colorado ACLU affiliate, said his organization saw bias in the case from the beginning.

"We took this case because the right to freely express one's religions is one of the fundamental constitutional rights that the ACLU is dedicated to protecting," Silverstein said.

"We believe that this verdict will send a message to all government employers that they have a duty to respect and accommodate an employee's sincerely held religious beliefs."

The federal jury awarded Reed a total of $2.25 million, which included back pay and benefits, future pay and benefits, and provision for emotional pain and suffering, inconvenience, and mental anguish. The amount of damages is likely to be challenged by attorneys for the federal government.

Reached at his new job at a cable television company, Reed said that while he sees the obvious parallels between his own situation and Sabbath-observant Jews who might face similar trouble at work, there are nonetheless important distinctions.

"The significance of this case is that I did not claim to be a member of a particularly huge denomination or hierarchical organization, but pretty much came into it as an individual."

Although Reed does belong to a Christian fellowship, he perceived and argued the case from the perspective of an individual versus the government. His victory shows "that individuals within this country can hold sincerely held beliefs and still be protected," he said. "All you have to have is a sincerely held belief. The David and Goliath scenario is very applicable here -- one small man, one unnoticeable individual -- and that's the way I put it to my boss when he was getting ready to terminate me."

Reed feels that the ruling in his favor had a lot to do with the his supervisors commented on his religious beliefs, a bias that was further demonstrated by the fact that they refused to compromise on his work schedule.

"I think it was the religious aspect. He [Reed's supervisor] had a personal bias with regard to my particular belief and basically that was manifest in [his determination to] demonstrate a certain hypocrisy on my part. He was just convinced that he could prove to me and the FAA that my religion was not sincere. He was never able to bring that out."

Although Reed and the supervisor who fired him, George Hof, are both Christians, the differences between his supervisor's "mainline Christian thinking" and Reed's more esoteric form of worship are so great that the term barely encompasses both, he said.

Reed's non-denominational religion "believes in Holy Scriptures, which is a more accurate way to put it than to say Christianity," he said. "I would have to say I am a student of the word, a disciple of Christ." Reed declined to be more specific than this general description.

Of direct importance in this case, Reed's fellowship believes that the original Jewish Sabbath, established by G-d, "the Father," is the correct one.

Since it directly affects Sabbath observance, Reed hopes that the ruling will be of benefit to other Christians who worship on the Saturday Sabbath, as well as to Jews and others.

"It was my prayer that this was not being worked out here only for my benefit; that others out there who have this belief would also benefit, not by being able to sue the government, but the desire that no one else should ever have to go through what I had to go through. They should be able to go in and worship as they choose and work with their employer."

The ACLU's Silverstein said there are obvious Jewish, as well as other, implications in last month's ruling.

"Of course there is significance for Jews, but there's really significance for any minority religion in this verdict because all individuals have a right to freely express their religion," he said.

"Unfortunately, we usually need to rely on that constitutional or statutory protection when it's a question of a minority religion who, for some reason, are forced to choose, as our client was forced to choose, between his job and his sincerely held beliefs."

Silverstein, who has worked at ACLU for five years, said that he is unaware of any Jews having claimed similar discrimination because of Saturday Sabbath observance.

To Reed, his case was never a question of insisting upon his rights as an American citizen.

He said he would gladly have settled for some sort of accommodation regarding his hours, and said he strove for a long time to reach such a compromise. He believes that both employer and employee need to make "reasonable accommodations" to meet each other's needs.

Even now, he said, he would prefer to go back to work with the FAA and earn his retirement rather than accept the damages, but said he cannot do that so long as his supervisor remains in his job. He feels that the work environment has soured because of the case, and fears that supervisory retribution would always be lurking behind his shoulder.

"Retaliation is a hard charge to prove," he said, "especially in air traffic control, where there are so many ways to discharge an employee."

Despite the fact that he is unlikely to return to his old career, Reed hopes that his case will have a positive effect in similar situations between other employers and employees.

"The impact of this, I would hope, is that employers would be put on notice that they need to take a more serious approach to accommodation issues and to work together with an employee to be sure that it is worked out. The law shouldn't have to be enforced. The law is there for our good, just like G-d's laws. That's the way this particular decision should be seen by employers, not as a threat, but simply as a notice that these matters can be worked out."

During the whole standoff, his own attitude was "let's work this out," Reed said. "They're the ones who insisted upon the litigation and their rights in this matter." He notes that the theme of his lawyer's opening argument was that such a trial didn't have to happen, that the case "didn't have to come to this."

Still, Reed feels that the federal government will likely appeal the ruling. "I think everything the federal government has done has been in error," he said. "If they follow the same pattern they will in fact err and try to appeal this, but if they come to their senses, they'll let it go."

Chris Leppek is the assistant editor of the Intermountain Jewish News. Comments by clicking here.


© 2001, IJN