Appeals court OKs time off for workers observing Sabbath

With the help of a legal brief from a Jewish organization, an appeals court held last week that a public employer must attempt to accommodate an employee's religious observance regardless of job seniority.

The case, Balint vs. Carson City, Nev., et. al, involves a Seventh-day Adventist, Lisette Balint, who requested, on starting work as a jail guard in the detention unit of the Carson City Sheriff's Department, a schedule that would permit Sabbath observance.

Balint belongs to a church whose members observe the Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Her first day of work would have fallen on a Friday night. When she refused to work on that day, the job offer was withdrawn.

Representing a coalition of religious-liberty organizations, the American Jewish Congress, through its national and San Francisco regional offices, filed an amicus brief in the appeal. The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America also prepared a friend-of-the-court brief. Filed too late, it was rejected.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the district court's 1996 decision that an employee's lack of seniority excused an employer from the statutory duty to accommodate the employee's Sabbath observance.

Balint worked in a police department whose schedules are determined by shift bids, with shifts rotating on the basis of seniority. Ignoring the seniority system would constitute an "undue hardship" for the employer, the lower court ruled.

Fred Blum, a San Francisco attorney and AJCongress vice president, helped write the amicus brief and argue the case, together with Balint's lawyer.

"We are very pleased with this decision," said Phil Baum, AJCongress executive director. "Sabbath observers should be heartened by the fact that their employers cannot insist they make a choice between religion and employment."

Filed on behalf of three Seventh-day Adventist organizations, the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, the amicus brief based its argument on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII stipulates it is unlawful for an employer not to make reasonable accommodations, short of undue hardship, for the religious practices of its employees and prospective employees.

The brief maintained that contrary to the district court's ruling, there was no necessary conflict between protecting seniority and religious accommodation. The brief also noted that alternatives such as shift swapping might have permitted an acceptable schedule to be arranged.

Now that the appeals court has ruled, the case is likely to go to trial. Balint wants her job back, according to Marc Stern of the AJCongress. Balint may also be entitled to back pay for the work she missed.

Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is a former J. staff writer.