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Keeping the Sabbath & Keeping Your Job

by Dr. Daniel Botkin

Dr. Daniel Botkin has a bimonthly publication, Gates of Eden. For a sample issue, write to PO Box 2257, East Peoria, IL 61611-0257.

"I'd like to keep the Sabbath, but I can't - I have to work on Saturdays."

Wrong. You may think so, but you are mistaken. No one who believes in keeping the Sabbath has to work on Saturdays, at least not in America. No one is pointing a gun at the heads of American Christians and Jews and forcing them to work on Saturdays. Americans who work on the Sabbath do so by their own choice, not because they have to.

There were many Sabbath-keeping Christians in Communist Russia who were ordered by their oppressive government to work on Saturdays. Many of these Christians chose to obey God rather than man, and they lost a lot more than some crummy job. They suffered imprisonment 1 exile, and torture for refusing to break God's holy Sabbath. When we stand with these faithful saints before the Lord on Judgment Day, will any of us have the gall to say, "Well, Lord, I wanted to keep the Sabbath, but I couldn't - I had to work on Saturdays"?

How does a disciple of the Messiah go about getting every Sabbath off from his job? First of all, you do not go in and ask your employer if you can have Saturdays off. You are not there to make a request; you are there to inform. You inform your employer (politely and respectfully, of course) that you will not be available to work from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset. Your employer may respond in a number of ways:

  • "I'll see what we can do to accommodate you, but in the meantime you'll have to keep working Saturdays."
  • "We can give you Saturdays off, but you'll have to work for a few hours on Friday nights."
  • "We'll do our best to accommodate you, but we may have to occasionally ask you to come in on a Saturday if we're short of help."

None of these responses is acceptable. Pharaoh tried three times to persuade Moses and Aaron to compromise the Lord's demands. (See Exodus 8:25-29, 10:8-11.) Moses and Aaron steadfastly refused to accept Pharaoh's offer of a compromise solution, and we must likewise refuse to accept an employer's offer of a compromise.

What if your employer refuses to accommodate you? One solution is to look for a different job. However, that may not be necessary. If this particular job is important to you, you may want to inform your employer of his legal obligation to accommodate employees' religious practices. This should be done in a polite, respectful manner, not in an obnoxious or threatening way.

Many people do not realize that federal law requires employers to accommodate employees who need time off for religious reasons, "unless the employer demonstrates that accommodation would result in undue hardship on the conduct of its business." You, the employee, do not have to prove the validity of your case. It is the employer who must try to prove that letting you keep the Sabbath would cause undue hardship to his business. The burden of proof is on the employer, not on the employee.

Federal law considers the following solutions to be "reasonable accommodation" which would not cause undue hardship to an employer's business:

  • Securing a substitute worker (even if the employer has to secure the substitute).
  • Flexible scheduling (flexible arrival and departure times; floating or optional holidays; flexible workbreaks; use of lunch time in exchange for early departure; staggered work hours; permitting an employee to make up time lost due to the observance of religious practices).
  • Lateral transfer and change of job assignment.

The employer "must offer the alternative which least disadvantages the individual [i.e., the employee] with respect to his or her employment opportunities. The employer can also be required to bear the extra costs of accommodating the employee, unless the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determines that it is "more than a de minimus cost."

Sometimes an employer is afraid to give an employee every Saturday off for fear that other employees will see this and likewise demand every Saturday (or Sunday) off for religious reasons. However, according to federal law, this is not proof of undue hardship: "A mere assumption that many more people, with the same religious practices as the person being accommodated, may also need accommodation is not evidence of undue hardship."

The above legal information can be found in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended [section 701(j), 703 and 717] and in Part XII Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Guidelines on Discrimination Because of Religion. These same laws apply to labor organizations as well as to employers. The laws pertain not only to scheduling (though this is the most frequent accommodation needed), but also to other religious practices such as a man's right to wear a beard because of his religious convictions.

The employer's legal obligation to accommodate "pertains to prospective employees as well as current employees." This means that employers conducting a job interview must be very careful when asking about the need for religious accommodation: "The Commission will infer that the need for an accommodation discriminatorily influenced a decision to reject an applicant when: (i) prior to an offer of employment the employer makes an inquiry into an applicant's availability without having a business necessity justification; and (ii) after the employer has determined the applicant's need for an accommodation, the employer rejects a qualified applicant. The burden is then on the employer to demonstrate that factors other than the need for an accommodation were the reason for rejecting the qualified applicant, or that a reasonable accommodation without undue hardship was not possible."

I do not wish to bore readers with a lot of legal jargon, but Sabbath-keepers need to know that employees have legal rights to reasonable accommodations, and that some employees take their employers to court to enforce these rights. Even as I was writing this article, a story appeared in the 11/27/98 Jewish Press about a Seventh-Day Adventist whose employer tried to refuse to accommodate her: "Lisette Balint, a resident of Carson City, Nevada, was offered a position in the city's sheriff's department, [and] the department refused to excuse her from working on the Sabbath" ("U.S. Court Defends Religious Rights," p. 62).

Sometimes the employer wins the case, of course, because sometimes it truly would cause undue hardship for the employer to accommodate the employee. When undue hardship is not an issue, though, the law is on our side.

Most employers are reasonable people and are intelligent enough to know that it would be wiser for them to accommodate your need than it would be to refuse you. Many employers will actually respect you for taking a firm, but polite, stand for what you believe. If they are smart, they will know that a person with strong convictions is likely to be a reliable, honest worker with some integrity. They will want to find a way to accommodate you. Some employers are not so kind and understanding, and will simply tell you, "No, you have to work on Saturdays." If that is the case, then you must pray and ask the Lord to show you what He would have you to do. Would the Lord have you take your employer to court, or would the Lord have you look for a different job? (You don't need to pray about whether or not the Lord would have you keep working on the Sabbath; He's already told you in the Ten Commandments not to do that!)

Fighting for your legal rights in court is one issue, but there is also the issue of maintaining a good testimony as a disciple of the Messiah. Some questions you might want to consider:

  • Do I really want to work for an employer who lets me have the Sabbath off only because he was forced to do so by the court?
  • Will going to court result in resentment and/or jealousy in my workplace, and do I want to work in such an atmosphere?
  • Is this job really worth fighting for?
  • Is it possible that letting me have every Sabbath off really would cause undue hardship for my employer's business?
  • Even if the court rules in my favor, would there still be some hardship (though not "undue"), and would it be right to let my employer bear this inconvenience?

Keeping your job should really be your third priority in this arena. Keeping the Sabbath and keeping your testimony should be the first priorities. If you can do this and also keep your job, that's great. Personally, I would not feel comfortable forcing my employer to pay extra costs in order to accommodate me, even though the law can require the employer to bear these minimal costs. For the sake of my testimony as a disciple of the Lord, I would prefer to not exercise this legal right, and would pay for the extra costs myself, unless my employer voluntarily and cheerfully insisted on bearing the cost. I would also be reluctant to demand my legal right to "the alternative which least disadvantages the individual with respect to his or her employment opportunities." If an employer was willing to accommodate me, I would want to find the solution which least disadvantages both of us. If my employer is willing to bear some minor inconvenience in order to accommodate me, then I should be willing to bear some minor inconvenience to keep the Sabbath.

Every situation is unique and has many factors to consider. This is why it is important to pray before deciding whether or not to take your employer to court if he refuses to let you have the Sabbath off. If you do lose your job for the sake of obeying the Lord, the Lord will honor your sacrifice. He may not provide another job immediately, but He has promised to meet your physical needs if you "seek first the kingdom of God" (Mathew 6:33).

In closing, always remember that you are not called to be a slave to your job. Although you are to treat your employer with honor and respect, your employer is not your Owner and Master. If you are a disciple of the Son of God, then He is your real Owner and Master. You are called to be a servant in His Kingdom. You are not called to be a slave to the world system. So don't let your employer or anyone else tell you that you have to work on the Sabbath.