In Thornton v. Caldor, 472 U.S. 703 (1985), the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that the government could not single out religious observers for special treatment when it found a Connecticut law that gave employees an absolute right not to work on their chosen Sabbath in violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

Connecticut law said employees could not be terminated for refusing to work on their Sabbath

Donald E. Thornton, a manager of a clothing department for a Caldor company retail store and a practicing Presbyterian, asserted that he had the right to not work on Sundays because of his religious beliefs. In 1979 Thornton told his supervisors that he would no longer work on Sundays and cited a Connecticut law that provided that employees cannot be terminated for refusing to work on their Sabbath.

Thornton spurned Caldor’s offers of accommodation and later resigned. He then filed a complaint with a state mediation board arguing that Caldor had violated his rights under the Sabbath law. The board agreed with Thornton, but its decision was later invalidated by the Connecticut Supreme Court.

Court found Sabbath law gave special consideration to religious observers

The case wound its way to the Supreme Court, where, writing for the majority, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger agreed with Connecticut’s high court. The majority found that the Sabbath law had the “primary effect” of advancing “a particular religious practice” by promoting religious interests “over all secular interests at the workplace.”

The Connecticut law, Burger argued, did not show any concern for the legitimate secular interests of the employers “or those other employees who do not observe a Sabbath.” Citing the celebrated federal appeals court judge Learned Hand, Burger wrote, “The First Amendment . . . gives no one the right to insist that in pursuit of their own interests others must conform their conduct to his own religious necessities.”

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote a concurring opinion, joined by Justice Thurgood Marshall, arguing that the Connecticut law impermissibly conveyed an endorsement of Sabbath observances. Justice William H. Rehnquist dissented without writing a separate opinion.

This article, written by Jeremy Leaming, was originally published in 2009.

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