The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has filed a religious discrimination lawsuit against the city of Lansing for the alleged firing of a Seventh-day Adventist church member for refusing to work on the seventh-day Sabbath, a violation of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In the complaint filed on July 15, 2022, Sylvia* said she was hired as a detention officer in 2018 after notifying officials in the police and human resources departments that she was unavailable to work from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday. Rather than taking steps to accommodate her, the city fired Sylvia almost immediately after her employment began.
The DOJ is seeking back pay with interest, as well as compensatory damages for Sylvia. Additionally, it seeks to have a judge issue an injunction preventing the city from discriminating against employees on the basis of religion and order the city to develop and implement policies that would prevent religious discrimination.
In a news report, City of Lansing Attorney Jim Smiertka denied the allegation, stating, “We do not believe that what was stated is consistent with the facts and the law as we know it.”
According to a DOJ news release, “Religious discrimination and intolerance have no place in the workplace today,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement. “Employees should not have to choose between their religion and their livelihood, particularly when the employer can accommodate their religious beliefs.”
Details of the Lawsuit
According to the complaint, Sylvia was interviewed for the detention officer position in December 2017, and during her interview, she stated that she would not be able to work from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset in observance of the Sabbath as a Seventh-day Adventist.
Sylvia advanced to a second interview in February 2018, and during that interview, she was again asked about scheduling. She explained that she had a flexible schedule and could work different schedules, but in stating that she was flexible, Sylvia meant that she was flexible outside of her observance of the Sabbath.
Sylvia was offered and accepted the position in June. After reviewing her work schedule on her first day, June 18, she noticed that she had been scheduled to work on Saturday, June 23, 2018, from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.
Sylvia restated to her employer that she couldn’t work Saturdays. After a series of meetings, on June 21, 2018, she received a termination letter, informing her that “effective June 20, 2018, the City of Lansing is terminating your employment due to you not being able to meet the job requirements of the Detention Officer position.”
Lake Union Prompts Investigation
Shortly before her termination, Sylvia contacted the office of Lake Union Conference Public Affairs and Religious Liberty (PARL), which advocates for members facing issues such as Sabbath accommodation. Lake Union’s PARL director, Nicholas Miller, responded by sending a letter and calling the city’s Human Resources office to see if the decision could be reversed. When the city would not budge, Miller filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
After an investigation, the EEOC found cause to believe that discrimination had taken place. Usually under those circumstances, Miller said, the agency will issue a right-to-sue letter that allows the victim to file a lawsuit with a private attorney. In a small number of particularly worthy or important cases, the federal government itself, through the Department of Justice, will sue to vindicate the victim’s rights. That is what has happened in Sylvia’s case, Miller said.
“This is an exciting development for Sylvia,” Miller added, “as after nearly three years of nothing happening, we had thought that her case was dead in the water.”
Sylvia’s story was published in the Lake Union Herald in October 2020 with a statement saying that standing for God might not bring short-term success or vindication, but it is nevertheless important to be faithful.
“The Lord had blessed her with a new and more satisfying job working with at-risk children, but we thought that vindication for her Sabbath convictions might not come in this world,” Miller said. “But apparently the delay in the case investigation was due to the pandemic slowdown. Now, rather unexpectedly, Sylvia faces the prospect of perhaps having her Sabbath convictions respected and protected in this life after all.”
* Last name withheld.