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A Seventh-day Adventist who was terminated from employment for Sabbath absences is entitled to unemployment benefits, rules Georgia Court of Appeals.

Case: Lester v. Butler, Court of Appeals of Georgia, No. A14A2008, Decided March 17, 2015

A three-judge panel of the Appeals Court of Georgia has ruled unanimously that the denial of unemployment benefits to a Seventh-day Adventist, who was fired for refusing to violate her religious beliefs by working on Saturdays, was unconstitutional.

Shirley D. Lester was hired by Goodwill of North Georgia, Inc. as a floor associate in April 2011 and in July 2011 she became a Seventh-day Adventist and requested that she no longer be scheduled to work on Saturdays due to her religious beliefs.  The employer said that it would accommodate only insofar as Lester could find another employee who would be willing to work Saturdays without requiring overtime pay.

The employer had a point system, and a policy of terminating any employee who accumulated 12 disciplinary "points" within a year. Lester had already accumulated four points for attendance due to illness and court issues. Lester was unable to find somebody to take her place and after missing four Saturdays, accumulating 2 points each, she reached the 12-point level and was terminated on August 20, 2011.

She filed for unemployment benefits which were denied, lost an administrative appeal, and ultimately filed a civil suit in which the judge upheld the denial.

Lester appealed, and the appellate court, in an opinion written by Judge Doyle, found in her favor pointing out that her case had precedent in the U.S. Supreme Court. Judge Doyle pointed out that the facts closely follow those in the U.S. Supreme case Hobbie v. Unemployment Appeals Comm. of Fla., 480 U.S. 136 (1987), and Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398 (1963).  Judge Doyle acknowledged the argument that 4 of the 12 disciplinary points had not been related to religion, but that in the overall scheme, "it is clear that she would not have been fired if she had not missed work on those Saturdays." Further, the unemployment hearing officer had made the decision to deny benefits solely on the fact that Lester had changed her work availability due to religion after she took the job in violation of the First Amendment and Hobbie and Sherbert.

You may recall that Sherbert v. Verner was one of the primary cases that established the compelling interest test for addressing free exercise issues, which is the subject of the Federal and various state Religious Freedom Restoration Acts.

In the Hobbie case, an employee became an Adventist, was refused accommodation, and was fired. Hobbie appealed the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court which held that the state's denial of the unemployment benefit represented an "infringement upon free exercise."



1 Comment

  1. Kevin James says:

    Thank you, Michael, for highlighting this very important case which I had the privilege to work with having done the first two appeals. At each denial we were more determined to address this in court if need be because a very important principle was at stake. Finally we received the correct decision that should have been made the first time. In light of the heated debates about religious free exercise and societal equality this decision places another strong plank in the free exercise jurisprudence structure defending religious liberty. We are indeed thankful for that.

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