Hospital Sued for Not Giving Adventist Nurse the Sabbath Off

The U.S. government takes a Minnesota hospital group to court.

Hospital Sued for Not Giving Adventist Nurse the Sabbath Off

, news editor, Adventist Review

The U.S. government is suing a privately owned hospital group in the state of Minnesota, accusing it of revoking a job offer in retaliation against a Seventh-day Adventist nurse who sought the Sabbath off.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a U.S. government agency, says North Memorial Health Care violated U.S. law on religious accommodation in the workplace by rescinding the job offer for Emily Sure-Ondara to work as a registered nurse.

Sure-Ondara, 37, received the written job offer in November 2013 and then asked her new employers for a schedule that would allow her to not work from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, according to the U.S. government lawsuit filed Wednesday.

North Memorial rejected the Sabbath request and withdrew the job offer eight days later, the lawsuit says.

North Memorial officials refused the request because “they couldn’t do it under the [labor] union contract,” U.S. government lawyer Jessica Palmer-Denig told the Minnesota Star Tribute newspaper.

Sure-Ondara later told North Memorial that she would be willing to work on Sabbath, but the Robbinsdale, Minnesota-based hospital group withdrew her job offer anyway, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said in a statement.

“We plan to show North Memorial’s decision to withdraw the job offer after Sure-Ondara’s request was retaliatory and unlawful,” said Jean P. Kamp, another government lawyer.

“Job applicants and employees may request a religious accommodation at any time,” Kamp said in the statement. “Applicants are not required to notify a potential employer about an accommodation issue before starting a job, though that’s what Ms. Sure-Ondara did. This lawsuit is about what happened next.”

The Adventist Church views Sabbath observance as a matter of personal conscience in the health-care industry, said Todd R. McFarland, associate general counsel for the Adventist world church, who has been involved in a number of Sabbath workplace cases.

“It is up to the individual member,” McFarland told the Adventist Review. “While some Sabbath work is clearly necessary in the hospital setting, in non-Adventsist hospitals not all work may be necessary.”

Adventist doctors and nurses who work at Adventist-owned hospitals may have little choice but to accept Sabbath shifts. However, Adventists who have worked in non-Adventist hospitals say employers are usually happy to give Sabbaths off in exchange for Sunday shifts, when people of other faiths ask for the day off.

“Even in cases where it is necessary, working on the Sabbath is at best less than ideal,” McFarland said. “It is perfectly appropriate for a church member to ask for an accommodation, and an employer should grant it if doing so would not cause an undue hardship.”

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said it sought and failed to reach a resolution with North Memorial before filing the lawsuit. It is seeking back pay for Sure-Ondara, compensation for job-search expenses, and compensation for “emotional pain, suffering, inconvenience, loss of enjoyment of life, and humiliation,” according to the lawsuit. It also wants North Memorial to adjust its employment policies to prevent a similar situation in the future.

“Federal law protects the right of job applicants or employees to request a religious accommodation without fear that the request will lead to retaliation,” said John Hendrickson, regional attorney for the U.S. agency’s Chicago District.

North Memorial, which operates several hospitals and scores of clinics in Minnesota, said it would not comment on ongoing litigation, the Star Tribute reported Thursday.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has been particularly sensitive  to claims of religious discrimination in recent years. The commission chair from 2001 to 2006 was Cari M. Dominguez, a Seventh-day Adventist and member of the Spencerville Adventist Church in Maryland.

In a case similar to North Memorial, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued a franchisee of the Dunkin’ Donuts restaurant chain last year for rescinding a job offer to an Adventist believer who had refused to start work on a Friday night. The franchisee — the Citi Brands manufacturing facility in Arden, North Carolina — agreed in July 2015 to settle the lawsuit by paying $22,000 to the Adventist man and taking measures to ensure that such an incident did not occur again.

Other Adventist employees have also found themselves in court in an effort to protect their Sabbath beliefs.

Last June, a U.S. federal judge ruled that Mini Price Storage, a chain of self-storage businesses based in Virginia Beach, Virginia, fired Adventist employee Sean Mohammed in 2011 in retaliation for his refusal to work on Sabbath and awarded him more than $150,000 in back pay.

In April, three retired federal government employees and Adventists who worked as ushers for the Washington Nationals went to court on accusations that the baseball team changed its work policy to prevent them from skipping games between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday to observe the Sabbath.

In July 2014, an Adventist air traffic controller, Matthew Gray, won a complaint against a U.S. government labor union that had ordered him to work on Sabbath in retaliation for his decision to quit the union.

Meanwhile, the nurse at the center of the Minnesota case said she has found a job that allows her to follow her practice of attending worship services on Friday evenings and Saturdays. She now works as a home-care nurse with a company called Fairview Health Services, the Star Tribute reported.

“I never got a first day on the job,” Sure-Ondara said of North Memoral. “Where I am now, I am accommodated.”