The proposal of the European Sunday Alliance presents several problems – instead of recognizing liberty of conscience in these issues, it would rely on the majority opinion that Sunday is the appropriate day of rest to shut down Sunday commerce and in the process would ignore and marginalize the rights of those who observe a different day.
I am a huge supporter of a weekly day of rest. I personally observe a weekly day of rest, and, like many others who write for Liberty, have advocated for the rights of those who have been denied rest day accommodation through the legislative and legal process. I have advocated for the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, which would make it harder for employers to force employees to choose between their religious rest day beliefs and their jobs. Employees need to be treated with respect, and given appropriate breaks by their employers.
However, the proposal of the European Sunday Alliance presents several problems – instead of recognizing liberty of conscience in these issues, it would rely on the majority opinion that Sunday is the appropriate day of rest to shut down Sunday commerce and in the process would ignore and marginalize the rights of those who observe a different day.
The language of proposed Sunday rest laws is nothing new, in fact, it was one of the first pieces of legislation passed when the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. In March of 321 A.D., Constantine declared, “Let all judges, the people of cities, and thoseemployed in all trades, remain quiet on the Holy Day of Sunday. (Code of Justinian, Book III, Title XII, III. THE JUSTINIAN CODE FROM THE CORPUS JURIS CIVILIS. Translated from the original Latin by Samuel P. Scott. Central Trust Company, Cincinnati, 1932).
Following the passage of the law, the Council of Nicea met in 325 A.D. and decided that Sunday was to be not only the day of rest, but the day of worship, and that Passover was to be observed on Sunday as well. Following that, those who insisted on keeping the seventh day as the day of rest and worship were severely persecuted for both civil and religious reasons.
In more contemporary history, the formation of the European Sunday Alliance last month parallels a similar development that took place in the aftermath of the American Civil War. In 1885, a petition was circulated for the U.S. Congress to use its powers to regulate interstate commerce to ban interstate trains, military parades, and mail service on Sundays except for work “of necessity, and mercy and humanity.” A bill was introduced in 1888 by Congressman Henry Blair, and it was soon endorsed by a wide range of religious organizations and labor unions including the Knights of Labor.
Most of the advocates at the time promoted the secular nature of the uniform day of rest, however for many religious advocates it represented a return to the kind of moral values that would reform a society that had so recently been torn apart. They believed that a return to Sunday Sabbath rest was a Biblical imperative, but publicly argued that it was for the good of society.
From a practical, economic standpoint, a uniform cessation of the wheels of commerce aside from certain health and safety exceptions, was required, otherwise it simply would not work. Since the majority believed that Sunday was already the day of rest, the Blair bill called for Sunday observance. Since the majority had thus defined the moral imperative, those who rested on a different day would simply have to adapt. In fact, those who worshipped on the seventh day of the week because of their religious beliefs could be deemed as acting illegally if they did not also rest on Sunday.
While the national bill did not pass, local variations passed across the nation, and some who worked on Sundays were arrested and even jailed.
In its Founding Statement, the European Sunday Alliance argues that, in the interest of synchronicity, Sunday is the appropriate day of rest for all of Europe, and makes no allowance or acknowledgment of what should be done for those whose faith requires them to rest on a day outside of Sunday. In fact, it is not hard to see how those who rest on a different day might be an annoyance or hindrance to Sunday rest, and even in the debate may be portrayed as roadblocks, troublemakers, or even anti-religious. Businesses who open on Sunday could be fined, and those who conduct their own entrepreneurial endeavors on Sunday could also find themselves operating against the law.
Many people are predicting that the European Sunday Alliance does not have the political power or support to actually implement a Sunday closing law across Europe. This could be true, but today, as in ages past, those who value liberty of conscience cannot afford to sit idly by hoping that it goes away. They need to make their voices heard, both legally and theologically. Legal arguments may become moot as laws can change, so those who wish to defend their beliefs must also be able to provide a theological basis to demonstrate the reason for their religious commitment and be able to demonstrate that it is, for them, a moral imperative, not simply a preference.
While one cannot predict the inevitability persecution resulting from what appears on its face to be a well-intentioned, if misguided proposal to relieve economic and political turmoil through rest, European history shows that stranger things have happened. Now, before it passes, is the time to speak up for those minorities who could be adversely affected if this proposal becomes law across Europe. It is a serious proposal and those who treat it as a mere curiosity may ultimately wish that they would have spoken up earlier.
This piece also appears with others addressing this issue at the Liberty Magazine Roundtable at http://www.libertymagazine.org/index.php?id=1760.