Good News from a Surprising Source?

One might not have expected this Department of Justice to be advocating on behalf of religious liberty and one might not look at this case as good news but arguably one might be wrong.

The Department of Justice is suing a school district in the west suburbs of Chicago for refusing to allow a Muslim teacher to make a three-week pilgrimage (Hajj) to Mecca. Before you roll your eyes or moan about the growing cultural influence of Muslims in North America consider this: how might this case affect sabbath-keeping Christians?

One of the great challenges of being a Christian in a post-Christian culture is the challenge of the sabbath. If the Barna studies from a few years back are accurate, that only about 10% of Americans really attend church weekly and only 50% of those attend twice weekly, then it seems likely that most Americans have never actually met anyone who observes the Christian sabbath as prescribed by the Westminster Standards. In such a case the traditional, confessional Reformed approach to the Christian sabbath is likely to lack plausibility in a 24/7 culture.

It is certainly true that Christians committed to Reformed sabbath observance face considerable pressure from their employers to work on Sunday. Supreme Court rulings on this are mixed. In Sherbert v Verner (1963) the court overturned the Supreme Court of South Carolina in favor of a Seventh-Day Adventist who was denied unemployment benefits because she was unable to work on Saturday. One might note it was Justice Brennan who wrote the majority opinion. In Thorton v Caldor (1985), however, the court held that a private employer who opened his business on Sunday (after the laws requiring businesses to close on Sunday were revised). Thornton was a Presbyterian who invoked a Connecticut law that states:

No person who states that a particular day of the week is observed as his Sabbath may be required by his employer to work on such day. An employee’s refusal to work on his Sabbath shall not constitute grounds for his dismissal.

Nevertheless, Justice Burger, who wrote the majority opinion, held that Thornton was protected from infringement by the state but not by a private employer.

Some observations:

  • It’s interesting that an ostensibly “liberal” justice wrote in favor of religious liberty and an ostensibly “conservative” justice has arguably written against the interests of religious liberty (in favor of the interests commercial liberty?). Did the founders envision that an employer would have a right to require employees to work 7 days a week? Probably not. Did the founders envision the sort of no-holds barred market capitalism that has developed in the modern period? Probably not. Did they imagine that there would be conflict between religious liberty and commercial interests? I don’t know but a society necessarily expresses some hierarchy of values in legislation and court rulings and those rulings and laws occur on some basis. Which is a higher value for a society? Religious liberty or freedom of commerce? Late modern society has restricted freedom of commerce in other instances. Since 1964 a business cannot refuse to serve customers based on the color of the customers’ skin. That’s a limit and a hierarchy of values. I’ve argued before, in that case, private property seems also to be infringed and that could be a detriment to religious freedom.
  • It’s also interesting that the Obama Justice Department is pursuing this case. Some cultural-religious-Christian conservatives may see this move as an attempt to further advance a “Muslim agenda” in the USA. Perhaps but, depending on the outcome, it may also yield benefits to Christians who want to work but who also want to observe a weekly sabbath. If the courts rule that Muslims have a right to take unpaid leave to go on a Hajj then might not Christians also be granted the right to take unpaid leave to observe the Sabbath?This possibility raises the question of whether Christians are willing to place their religious commitments above their commercial and financial commitments. Would Christians take that deal?

    Look, you can have Sundays off but we’re not going to close on Sundays and I have to hire someone to take your place so you’ll have to take unpaid leave on Sundays.

  • This isn’t exactly spoiling the Egyptians but maybe in between the times this is the best for which we can expect, an unexpected blessing? Will Reformed Christians be prepared to capitalize (pun intended) on this opportunity or has our piety and practice become indistinguishable from generic American Protestant mainliners and evangelicals?
    • Post authored by:

    • R. Scott Clark
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      R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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