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by Alan J. Reinach, Esq., executive director of the Church State Council and president of NARLA-West
|Fifty years ago today, July 2, 1964, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964.|
Fifty years ago today, July 2, 1964, 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,” says 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 discrimination. 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 America 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 United States, these things are now illegal.
The Civil Rights Act was passed fifty 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,” Dwayne Leslie, director of legislative affairs for the Seventh-day Adventist Church reminds us.
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.