July 17, 2014

U.S. Law Allowing Adventists to Miss Work on Sabbath Turns 50

, executive director of the Church State Council and president of

Fifty years ago this
month, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of
1964, a landmark piece of legislation that outlawed discrimination based on
race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

For U.S. Seventh-day
Adventist church members who have experienced workplace Sabbath accommodation
hardships, the existence of this legislation has brought much needed
recourse. Title VII of the act provides strong legal protection for
workers who experience discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, or
national origin.

“It is hard to
overstate the importance of Title VII,” said Todd McFarland, associate general
counsel for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and the attorney who handles
Sabbath accommodation cases for church members. “Every Adventist who has not
had to choose between her job and her faith in the last half century can thank
this law. While the law is not perfect and needs strengthening, it remains the
cornerstone of religious liberty for Adventists in the United States.”

The civil and religious
rights that Americans frequently take for granted didn’t just happen. Passage
of the U.S. Civil Rights Act was a hard-fought battle. But ordinary people
began to believe that they had the power to effect change. They shone their
light; they marched and couldn’t be turned around; and they did overcome.

A religious freedom
case that pre-dated the Civil Rights Act involved the denial of unemployment
benefits to a Seventh-day Adventist woman who had been fired from a South
Carolina cotton mill because she would not work on Saturday. She was denied
unemployment benefits, but she could not sue the company for employment
discrimination because it was not illegal to engage in religious

Instead, she argued
that the government could not deprive her of unemployment benefits because of
her religious observance of Sabbath. Adele Sherbert won a stunning and rare
victory for religious freedom.

Today, hundreds of Seventh-day
Adventists in the U.S. obtain religious accommodations every year thanks to the
Civil Rights Act. Although it is also true that every business day, several
Americans still lose their jobs due to religious discrimination, now there is a
legal remedy.

Many countries and
cultures now embrace Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision of judging every person on
the content of his or her character, rather than the color of their skin. Of
course our world is far from perfect. There is still plenty of racism, and
sexism, and religious discrimination. But in the U.S., these things are now

The Civil Rights Act
was passed 50 years ago because of the heroism of ordinary people who worked
for change. Today is a day to celebrate a piece of legislation that has
benefitted so many faithful Christians in their desire to honor their Savior
and the Sabbath.

“While we are
thankful that Title VII has provided relatively strong protections for people
of faith in the United States, we must not forget the increasing restrictions
on religion happening today in other parts of the world,” says Dwayne Leslie,
director of legislative affairs for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

May this anniversary
draw attention to the importance of religious freedom, and encourage other
nations to embrace a legal culture of respect for the rights of all people.

This commentary originally appeared on the website of
the North American Division.