Accommodations vs. Rights

Ask any observant adult Jew what calendar year is the best and they will tell you: any year (such as 2023) where the first day of Rosh Hashanah is a Saturday. Why? Because in that case, they will only have to miss one day, Yom Kippur, during the Hebrew month of Tishrei, and thereby avoid missing 6 days of work in a 23 day period. They don’t even need to leave early on Erev Yom Kippur since it falls on a Sunday.

There is an inverse corollary to this principle, which is that the best year for a non-Jewish employee at a Jewish institution is one in which the Tishrei holidays fall on weekdays (such as 2022). They can get a whopping 7 workdays off in that same timeframe without having to take any vacation.

Observant Jews who work in the secular world are faced with the challenge of making sure they can fulfill both their religious and job duties. One problem is having to take up to 9 days of vacation or personal time just for Jewish holidays. Sometimes employers only offer 10 days total of vacation. Another dilemma is what to do on Fridays. In the summer, there isn’t an issue, but in the winter when Shabbat begins as early as 4:15 PM in some places, it is impossible to stay at ones desk until the traditional quitting time.

To resolve these conflicts, many observant employees learn how to ask for accommodations. They commit to coming in early each week to make up for missed Shabbat time. They offer to work during Christmas and New Year’s when non-Jewish employees look to take off. While some are successful in these strategies, the law in the United States does not generally require employers to grant religious accommodations.

The Supreme Court has ruled that employers can prevent their workers from observing their religion unless allowing them to do so would cost the employer only the bare minimum. This low standard has disproportionally hurt minority groups like Jews. Christians don’t have to worry about taking off time for Christmas and Easter. The first is always a federal holiday and the second always falls on Sunday.

A new case before the court could change the way observant Jews seek accommodations. A postal worker sued for the right to not have to work on Sundays, his Sabbath. If he wins, Jews will now have the right to take off time for their religious observances as well, rather than bargain for it. Such a change is likely to be supported by liberals due to the fact that it will be a civil liberties win for minority groups.

Conservatives would also celebrate such a decision because of the potential consequences for the culture war. Under such a ruling, a pharmacist might be able to opt out of filling a contraception prescription. A police officer might not be required to help protect an abortion clinic. A waiter could deny service to LGBTQ customers. For many on the right, religious liberty means being able to discriminate against others.

We will have to see how the court comes up with its rules if it decides in favor of the postal worker. In allowing religious minorities to observe their customs which harm no one else, will it also protect third parties from the discriminatory practices of other faiths? The history of this court, which has already pushed the limits of freedom of religion, suggests that the answer is no. While finally having the right to not work on Shabbat and holidays would undoubtedly be a great win for American Jews, will it be worth it if other oppressed people see their status diminished? We can only hope that common sense, and common decency, prevail.


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