In My Own Words: A guaranteed day off

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Remember the Blue Laws? For readers who are too young to remember, the Blue Laws meant that businesses and stores were required to be closed on Sundays. In their strictest form, many leisure activities were also forbidden and alcohol was not allowed to be served in the few places that were open. This created problems for Jewish merchants who would have preferred to close their stores on Saturday for Shabbat and be open on Sunday. As time passed, the laws changed, and many stores and some businesses are now open seven days a week.

The fact that some businesses require workers to be available seven days a week has not only created problems for the Jewish population, but the Christian one. That’s why the Jewish community – particularly the Orthodox community – is carefully watching an evangelical Christian mail carrier’s employment discrimination suit against the United States Postal Service, a case the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear. 

Gerald Groff, an evangelical Christian, had asked the USPS not to assign him to a Sunday shift because it is against his religious practice to work on Sundays. In the past, that might not have been a problem, but since the Postal Service began delivering packages for Amazon, it now has regular Sunday delivery for packages only. 

While employers are required to make accommodations for an employee’s religious practice by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, they are only required to make “reasonable” accommodations, ones that don’t create “undue hardship” for them and other employees. Groff is asking the court to reconsider the 1977 court ruling Trans World Airlines v. Hardison, which limited what employers are required to do.

I’m not a lawyer so the specific legal implications are beyond me, but I find this interesting from a personal and sociological perspective. For example, 100 years ago, a practicing Christian would have had little problem not working on Sundays. No one would have expected him to – and it might have been illegal if he did. During that time period, it was illegal for people in New York state to play football, golf, hunt or attend the circus on Sundays. In fact, there are still some restrictions when liquor can be sold on Sundays.

For those of us who either prefer not to work on Shabbat and holidays, or who believe it’s required by God for us not to do so, what occupation we choose may be based on whether we’ll be able to take those days off. While it’s relatively easy to find businesses that only require attendance Mondays-Fridays (or which allow employees to perform additional work on Sunday, not Saturday), it’s more difficult to take all the chagim (holidays) off. Just think of juggling work and the days off needed for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah. Then in the spring, there’s Passover (with either two or four days of chagim depending on your practice) and one or two days for Shavuot. For many people, taking that time off might mean they’ll have no remaining vacation time.

I’m extremely grateful to be working for a Jewish organization that requires us to take that time off. But not everyone can work for a Jewish organization or business. The days I do my chaplaincy work sometimes get juggled to avoid the holidays. Unlike the rest of The Reporter staff, who love when all the fall holidays occur on weekdays, I prefer it when they fall on a weekend.

It will be interesting to see how the court balances the needs of religious individuals with the requirements on a business to treat all its employees fairly. What is reasonable for one business might not be reasonable for another. Plus, there have to be limits to what religious freedom means, specifically if a person wants to impose their religious practice on others: one clear example is someone offering a prayer to Jesus before a meeting, a practice unfair to Jewish workers. But it should be possible for people to be able to observe their Sabbaths. And maybe we don’t need Sunday delivery of packages – unless it’s done by someone who would rather work on Sunday than Saturday.