Seventh-day Adventists have been involved in a number of landmark court cases bearing on both the Free Exercise and Establishment clauses of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and on statutory law. The main issues have included security of employment for Sabbath observers, the right of persons dismissed from their jobs for reasons of conscience to unemployment compensation, the right of those with conscientious objections to bearing arms in the military to become citizens, and the freedom to choose not to join a labor union. Some of its cases created key judicial precedents in the area of religious liberty. The Adventist Church, its medical, educational and publishing institutions, and its members as such have become increasingly involved in court suits in recent decades. This paper examines the dynamics, significance, and trajectories over time of these cases. Through tracing the changing issues and outcomes of Adventist cases and the increasing comfort of Adventists with the court system, it finds another measure of Adventism’s journey along the route from sect towards denomination.
Published in the Journal of Church and State, 40/3, Summer 1998, 553-588.
Click here for a PDF version of this paper: Seventh-day Adventists and US Courts
Sects, according to Stark and Bainbridge, are marked by a high “state of tension” with their “surrounding sociocultural environments” (1985: 23). Tension is characterized by difference, separation, and antagonism, for a sect and its surrounding society “disagree over proper beliefs, norms, and behavior” (1985: 49).
It is not surprising that differences, tensions, and antagonisms have often resulted in conflicts that have been fought out in courts. The first case to argue the Free Exercise of Religion Clause of the U.S. Constitution before the Supreme Court (Reynolds v. United States 1879) upheld the ban on polygamy among Mormons1. Jehovah’s Witnesses have also been the focus of major cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. The Minersville School District v. Gobitis decision (1940) found that American schools had the right to compel children to salute the national flag during daily assembly. In the wake of this decision, violence and intimidation against Witnesses increased dramatically, fanned by wartime patriotic fervor. However, in the midst of World War II, in Barnette v. West Virginia State Board of Education (1943), the Supreme Court courageously reversed its earlier decision (Penton 1985: 143; Beckford 1975: 35).
Seventh-day Adventist beliefs have also fostered norms and behavior that have resulted in tension and conflict with American society and have often been fought in court. The most frequent source of dispute has been the Adventist belief that Saturday is the Sabbath: their insistence on refraining from work from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday and, earlier, the corollary, especially among farmers, that they should be free to work on Sunday, have resulted in arrests, loss of jobs, and ultimately court cases. Other norms that have resulted in court battles have been their refusal to bear arms in wartime or to join and contribute to labor unions and their practices of door-to-door solicitation and selling of religious publications. Some of these cases have reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where one in particular (Sherbert v. Verner 1963) became a pivotal case in the application of the religion clauses of the Constitution. In recent decades the Adventist Church, its medical, educational and publishing institutions, and its members as such have also become increasingly involved in court suits. Two of these cases, in particular, have also been cited frequently in other court opinions.
While cases focusing on Mormons and Witnesses have received considerable attention from scholars, this has not been so with those focusing on Adventists. This paper seeks to fill this gap by reviewing the major clusters of cases and decisions. At the same time, through tracking changing issues, outcomes, and the growing ease of Adventists with the courts over time, it introduces another measure of the progress of Adventism along the trajectory from sect towards denomination, as its tension with its surrounding sociocultural environment has decreased.
The research reported here is a product of a large study of international Seventh-day Adventism. Over the past twelve years I have gathered data in 55 countries in all twelve of the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s world divisions, completing 3,400 long, in-depth interviews with church administrators, pastors, teachers, hospital personnel, college students, and leading laypersons. I have also collected lengthy, probing questionnaires from interviewees (who are mostly church employees) and from samples of college students and laity, gathered field notes from observation at church services and key meetings, and culled data systematically from Adventist periodicals, statistical reports, and secondary sources.
This paper focuses on the U.S., which, along with Canada, comprises the North American Division of the Adventist Church. Its data are drawn from court case records, North American interviews, books and periodicals published by the official Adventist publishing houses, and other secondary sources. The analysis of the dynamics of change in earlier periods is based on data drawn from the work of historians of Adventism and on oral history interviews by the author.
In order to keep the confidentiality of interviewees, as was promised them, the convention adopted by the study is to refrain from citing the names of interviewees when they are quoted except when they are major figures in the church.
Seventh-day Adventism emerged from the Millerite Movement, which had preached throughout the American Northeast that Christ would return in 1844, after what they called the “Great Disappointment.” The new religious group was marked by considerable tension with its surrounding culture. It rejected the American Dream, for it continued to predict the imminent return of Christ and the end of the world as we know it. It fostered a markedly different lifestyle, which included the observance of Saturday as the Sabbath in a society where a six-day work week was almost universal, diet and entertainment prohibitions, and a commitment to “dress reform” and abstinence from jewelry and makeup. This set Adventists apart and made it difficult for them to associate with others. These barriers were reinforced by the close ties that developed among members, whose lives typically centered around their church, the subculture it created, and its mission, who attended church schools, and who were consequently drawn to settle in “Adventist Ghettos” where many of them were employed in church institutions.
Not only were Adventists different and separated from the surrounding society, but their beliefs fostered antagonisms between them and others. Adventists viewed themselves as “God’s Remnant People,” the true church charged with bearing God’s final warning message in the last days. Other Protestant groups were “apostate” and had become “the whore of Babylon”; the Roman Catholic Church was identified with the persecuting “beast” of the book of Revelation. Adventist preaching focused closely on the apocalyptic visions of the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation, where governments were portrayed as wild beasts which hurt God’s people. A unique interpretation identified the American Republic with the second beast of Revelation 13, which, although it had “two horns like a lamb,” would now speak “like a dragon.” In this dragon phase it would breach the constitutional separation of church and state, joining together with the apostate Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, to persecute the Remnant immediately before Christ’s return through, in particular, decreeing that since its members were without “the Mark of the Beast,” they would not be allowed to “buy or sell.” Adventists seized on the fact that their members, usually farmers, were facing arrest under the “blue laws” of several states for working on Sunday as proof that the expected persecution was already waxing3. That is, Adventist eschatology enshrined tension with the state.
This tension increased during the Civil War, when Adventists, in the face of conscription, took a position against involvement in military service. Ellen White, the Adventist prophet, as was her wont, clinched the decision: “I was shown that God’s people…cannot engage in this perplexing war, for it is opposed to every principle of their faith” (1885 : 361). This position was then enforced: members who participated in the war were disfellowshipped (Graybill 1978: 26). While this position placed Adventists among a small deviant minority and subjected them to scorn and questions concerning their loyalty, it did not result in legal punishments. Taking advantage of loopholes in the military draft designed for Quakers, they secured official recognition as conscientious objectors.
Adventism began to change significantly after the Civil War. It became international, zealously sending out missionaries, so that its membership, which had stood at 5,440 in 1870, increased to 75,000 by 1901. At the same time Adventists set about building institutions: by 1901 they had built 16 colleges and high schools, a medical school, 75 “sanitariums” or hospitals, 13 publishing houses, and 31 miscellaneous institutions. Adventism was putting down a stake in the societies where it operated (General Conference, 1901; General Conference, 1902: 596, 597).
These changes were accompanied by a reshaping of Adventist eschatology. While America continued to be identified with the two-horned beast, it was no longer portrayed as already in the dragon phase, but as still lamb-like, and its demise was thus seen as less imminent. That is, the time believed to be remaining before the second coming of Christ was lengthening, and the tension with the state was beginning to relax (Butler 1974: 193-94). Ellen White counseled rapprochement with civil authorities in order to facilitate missionary work; indeed, she urged Adventists to help prolong the future of America “so the Adventist message could go forth and flourish” (Butler 1974: 193). Adventists found themselves in the anomalous situation where they wished to delay the end of the world in order to have greater opportunity to preach that it was at hand: they were postponing the apocalypse.
In the midst of these changes Adventists were confronted with a crisis that seemed to be a direct fulfillment of what they had predicted: the National Reform Association launched a campaign to extend the Sunday sacredness “blue laws” in effect in some states to all others through federal legislation. Despite the fact that their eschatology saw the passage of a “national Sunday law” as the culmination of the prophecy concerning the two-horned beast, and thus a sure signal that the Second Coming of Christ was at hand, Adventists felt obliged by Ellen White’s counsel to “extend the time” to respond boldly to this threat. They established a magazine, the American Sentinel, devoted to religious liberty, in 1883; in 1888 and 1889 they participated in the lobby that helped defeat Senator H.W. Blair’s Sunday-Rest bill; and in 1889 the General Conference [church leadership] founded the National Religious Liberty Association. By 1892, when Adventists entered the debate over the Sunday closing of the Chicago World Exposition, their involvement included petitions to both Houses, the reading of papers before congressional committees, and the presentation of legal briefs in court (Butler 1974: 196-98; Morgan, 1994: 241-42).
Adventists continued their defense of religious liberty in the twentieth century. Their magazine devoted to that topic was renamed Liberty in 1906, and targeted at “thought leaders.” They became widely identified with protecting the First Amendment, for they saw the separation of church and state as the basic guarantee of religious liberty in the U.S. Their activities included lobbying against what was deemed to be threatening legislation, building coalitions to support or argue against legislation as needed, and, eventually, involvement in court cases.
Another important sign that tension between Adventism and American society was diminishing appeared during World War I, when the Adventist Church replaced its Civil War position on military service – conscientious objection – with noncombatancy, under which its conscripted members served as unarmed soldiers, usually in medical units. This shift allowed Adventists to express their patriotism while upholding their faith. Service in medical units was preferred because Adventists regarded medical work on the Sabbath as legitimate, so that placement there solved both the key problems posed by conscription. To facilitate such placements should there be conscription, the church had, in 1916, established Red Cross training schools at its colleges and hospitals, where young men liable to the draft could take training that would make them attractive to such units. However, once the draft was instituted, Adventists found that they still faced problems concerning Sabbath observance during basic training. Although Church leaders were eventually able to arrange for members to be excused from all unnecessary military activities on that day, at war end 35 remained in military prisons, with sentences ranging from 5 to 20 years, for disobeying officers on this account. They were then released by proclamation (Wilcox 1936: 151).
Since graduates from unaccredited colleges could no longer be admitted to their medical school without jeopardizing its accreditation, Adventists sought and obtained accreditation for their colleges during the next two decades (Hodgen 1978: 227). These changes ultimately had a profound impact on the colleges and, through them, on Adventism: accreditation forced the colleges to send their faculty members to secular universities for doctoral studies, thus exposing them to a world from which they had been protected; it raised the quality of the education they offered and increased its secular content; and it prepared the way for the upward mobility of their graduates. Many of the latter were employed initially in the expanding institutions of the church as medical practitioners, nurses, professors, teachers, and managers. Later, as comfort of educated Adventists with the broader society increased and the number graduating expanded manyfold, the vast majority followed careers in the secular world. As the number of Adventists entering the professions increased dramatically, their wish to appear “regular” rather than “peculiar” had the effect of encouraging decisions that would further reduce Adventism’s tension with society.
In the late-1930s, as World War II began to loom dangerously on the horizon, Adventism’s separation from society began to narrow dramatically as its leaders reached out to create relationships with the American military and, through the latter, with political authorities. In 1939, as war broke out in Europe, the American church again established a program to provide medical training to members who were potential draftees. This time, however, the program was much more sophisticated than in 1916. Called the Medical Cadet Training Program, it was directed and supervised, through cooperation with the armed forces, by regular army officers. Both students at Adventist colleges and others potentially eligible for the draft were trained (Dick, 1974: 20). The official church paper commented: “Refusing to be called conscientious objectors, Seventh-day Adventists desire to be known as conscientious cooperators” (Editorial, 1941: 4). Indeed, the cooperation of the Adventist church and the military in medical training became so close that some members criticized it for having become part of the national war machine (Syme 1973: 73). Some 12,000 American Adventists served during World War II as noncombatants in medical branches of the services. Church leaders were especially proud of their military heroes, such as Desmond Doss, whose bravery earned him a Congressional Medal of Honor in 1945 (Sibley and Jacob 1952: 86; Schwarz 1979: 443).
The American Medical Cadet Corps was revived at the time of the Korean War, and large numbers of conscripted Adventists served again in medical units. During this war Adventist military chaplains, who were paid by the armed forces and had military careers, were appointed for the first time. By this time the Adventist noncombatant position no longer separated them, but encouraged closer relations with government and military leaders. On numerous occasions church leaders equated noncombatancy with “conscientious cooperation,” and, indeed, signs of cooperation between Adventism and American authorities multiplied.
In 1954 the U.S. Army established a special camp at Fort Sam Houston in Texas where all noncombatants could receive their basic training. This removed them from regular units where their refusal to bear arms had been a regular source of confusion. Over half the men trained there were Adventists (Davis 1970: 222). “It was a program engineered for the needs of conscientious cooperators” (Knight 1992: 17). That same year the U.S. Army Surgeon General contacted church headquarters, seeking approval for the Army to ask Adventist draftees to volunteer for a research program designed especially for them which would “contribute significantly to the nation’s health and security” (Smith 1996: 36) Theodore Flaiz, Secretary of the Medical Department of the General Conference, responded positively: “If any one should recognize a debt of loyalty and service for the many courtesies and considerations received from the Department of Defense, we, as Adventists, are in a position to feel a debt of gratitude for these kind considerations” (Flaiz 1954). The upshot was the creation of “Project Whitecoat,” under which volunteers from among drafted Adventist noncombatant servicemen spent their periods of military service as guinea pigs in biological warfare research for the U.S. Army at Fort Detrick, Maryland. Thanks to the enthusiastic encouragement of church leaders, 2,200 Adventists participated in the program between 1955 and 1973 (Smith 1996: 49-50; interviews)4.
Many Adventists had become militant patriots, and these were dismayed when the ideology surrounding the antiwar movement in the late 1960s led to a spurt in the number of young Adventists choosing to register as conscientious objectors. A heated debate ensued, which finally triggered another major shift in the Church’s position when it declared in 1972 that a member’s decision on military service was a matter of individual conscience. After this decision, American Adventism backed away from the serious teaching of noncombatancy to its youth, many of whom began to enlist in the military after the draft was replaced by a volunteer force in 1973. Within the U.S. in the 1990s, “military recruiters come to Adventist school campuses, and school and university bulletin boards display posters advertising the benefits of service in the armed forces” (Thomas 1991: 2). In 1991, the office of Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries estimated the total number of military personnel with an Adventist background as 6-8,000, and that 2,000 of these had participated in the Gulf War (interviews).
In spite of the profound religious, social, and political changes of the twentieth century, the Adventist Church clung to its eschatology, with its expectation of persecution at the hands of the American government, and some members remained alert, gathering and disseminating evidence which purportedly suggested that Congress was secretly preparing a national Sunday law. Nevertheless, to most American Adventists the republic seemed “safe and benevolent, lamb-like enough” (Morgan 1992: 156). The Adventist situation had clearly become more comfortable: for example, when, during World War II, the Supreme Court decision in the Jehovah’s Witness Barnette case (1943) strengthened religious liberty and then President Roosevelt included religious freedom as one of his four basic freedoms, the editor of the church paper commented that what Adventists had prophesied clearly lay further in the future (Editorial, 1943: 4). After the war there was considerable debate within American Adventism over the extent to which it should accept the government aid that had become available to private institutions such as schools and hospitals. The ultimate decision to accept aid, with some restrictions, for its institutions compromised the Adventist stand on the separation of church and state (Morgan 1992: 271-284; Syme 1973: 120-143).
In the early 1980s, when church leaders discovered that vast sums in government aid, mostly from USAID, were available for distribution, they transformed the church’s disaster relief agency into the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA). They saw this as an “entering wedge,” which could penetrate regions where conventional missionaries were often unwelcome. However, the source of the funds and the restrictions placed on their use transformed ADRA in many ways into an arm of American foreign policy: for example, ADRA distributed a great deal of aid in Honduras but nothing in Nicaragua during the 1980s Contra War in Nicaragua (interviews).
The decision by Adventist leaders to pursue positive relations with the American government has thus met with considerable success over time. This is not to say that the Adventist Church has gained significant political influence. However, it has often received symbols of acceptance. Its state of tension with both the government and the broader society has been greatly reduced.
This general pattern is mirrored in the data concerning Adventism’s involvement in the American court system. The changing issues and outcomes over time and the increasing ease of Adventists with the courts provide another measure of the progress of Adventism along the trajectory from sect towards denomination.
Cases Flowing from Sunday Work
Since no “national Sunday law” was ever enacted, all those arrested during the nineteenth century for working on Sunday were held because they had contravened state laws. Adventists developed no concerted legal response to these arrests, and responded rather passively to them. However, one of those arrested, R.M. King of Obion county, Tennessee, filed two appeals, the second of which was a petition for writ of habeas corpus to a federal court.
After several earlier arrests at the behest of his neighbors for Sunday desecration, King was eventually found guilty in a state circuit court of the more serious charge of creating a common nuisance because he had persisted in plowing his fields on Sundays. The court rejected his defense, based on the Free Exercise Clause, declaring that his actions amounted to a nuisance under common law in Tennessee and that his being a Seventh-day Adventist who strictly observed Saturday did not exempt him from the law, even though he claimed that, as a poor farmer, he could not afford to give up two days work per week. His appeal to the state supreme court proved fruitless, for it affirmed his conviction and returned him to prison until he paid a substantial fine (King, 1891).
Not one to give up easily, King then appealed on a writ of habeas corpus to a federal circuit court, alleging that he had been deprived of his liberty without due process of law, denied the equal protection of the law contrary to the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and denied the religious freedom guaranteed to him by the Constitution. However, he again lost the case, even though the opinion of the federal court concerning whether his actions amounted to a nuisance was contrary to that of the state courts. The reason for this outcome was that the U.S. Supreme Court had not yet applied First Amendment rights to the states through the doctrine of incorporation based on the Fourteenth Amendment:
“The fourteenth amendment of the constitution of the United States has not abrogated the Sunday laws of the states, and established religious freedom therein. The states may establish a church or creed, and maintain them, so far as the federal constitution is concerned” (King, 1891).
Given this legal context, Adventists had little room for maneuver when arrested for desecrating Sunday. This helps to explain why most of them suffered the fines or imprisonment dealt them by the state courts without incurring the further costs of fruitless appeals. However, such arrests declined early in the new century as states diverted their attention away from Sunday desecration. Adventists were almost totally absent from the courts for the next several decades.
Meanwhile, Adventists continued to be severely disadvantaged in the job market by their need to be free on Saturdays. However, they were without legal grounds for redress until the 1960s. This dilemma, together with the Adventist sense of separation from society and their expectation of persecution focusing on their Sabbath observance, discouraged them from making any concerted attempt to address that problem for several decades.
In 1936, just prior to the first of the rapid changes in Adventism’s relations with the Establishment, leaders at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists added a lawyer, Millward Taft, a former Vermont Attorney General and Maryland county judge, to their staff as “General Counsel.” This was the first step towards the emergence of a legal department at church headquarters that would later, as legislation and case law opened opportunities, initiate or intervene in cases to defend the Church or its members when they faced legal problems.
Meanwhile, a series of legal decisions, extraneous to Adventism, had begun which would encourage the deepening involvement of Adventists in the courts in the decades following World War II. As it considered the implications of the due process requirement of the 14th amendment, the Supreme Court began a series of decisions holding various sections of the bill of rights to be applicable to the states ‘incorporated’ by the due process requirement. In its decision in Palko v. Connecticut in 1937, the Court signaled that it was ready to hear arguments that the incorporation doctrine should be applied to the religion clauses of the first amendment. Incorporation of the free exercise clause was accomplished in Cantwell v. Connecticut in 1940, and the doctrine was extended to the establishment clause by Everson v. Board of Education in 1947. These decisions enabled the proliferation of religion clause cases to follow under the Warren and Burger Courts.
One corollary of this changing legal environment and of the easing of tension between Adventism and the surrounding society would be its growing comfort with participation in the courts. However, its participation began during World War II with a group of war-related cases.
Cases Related to Military Service
Although Adventists conscripted into the military during World War I had faced punishment for refusing to do basic training on their Sabbath, the new close relationship between the Adventist Church and military authorities during World War II usually ensured that problems were avoided or solved amicably. The fact that American Adventist conscripts refused to bear arms did not, then, result in court cases.
However, a group of cases focused on aliens whose applications for citizenship were opposed by the Immigration Service because they refused to state unequivocally that they were willing to bear arms. One such application, by a noncombatant Adventist soldier, was upheld in court on the ground that the Selective Service and Naturalization Acts, which had created a noncombatant service classification and provided for the naturalization of persons performing military duties, allowed for the naturalization of such soldiers, so that the statutory oath of allegiance no longer implied a willingness to bear arms (Kinloch 1944). However, a pastor’s wife who declared that she was a noncombatant who would be willing to participate in any kind of war work except to use a weapon was denied citizenship on the ground that three earlier cases (United States v. Schwimmer 1929, United States v. Macintosh 1931, and United States v. Bland 1931) had found against applicants who announced that they would not, as naturalized citizens, assist in the defense the nation (Losey 1941). Finally, in the first case involving an Adventist to reach the Supreme Court, the Court held that Congress had not intended to make a promise to bear arms a prerequisite to naturalization and that it was an error to deny citizenship to applicants who, because of religious scruples, declared that they would not take up arms to defend the U.S. while otherwise being ready to support and defend its Constitution and laws (Girouard v. United States 1946).
Opting out of Labor Unions
Between 1872 and 1915 the Review and Herald, the official paper of the Adventist Church, carried 91 articles on the rising labor movement, while the Signs of the Times, a paper aimed at recruiting non-Adventists, contained more than 30 (Kistler 1984: 38-39). Since Adventists were at that time largely rural farmers and artisans, and avoided factory work because of Sabbath problems, it is not surprising that these articles “reflected the values, fears and prejudices of rural small-town Protestant America regarding the labor movement”: fearful of the flood of immigrants, they quickly accepted conspiracy theories identifying communists, foreigners, or Catholics as the sinister forces behind it (Kistler 1984: 35). They saw the strikes and capital-labor conflict as threatening social order – and as a sign that Christ’s coming was near. In 1886, when the Adventist president, George Butler, attempted to give an official answer to the question of how Adventists should relate to labor unions, he described them as out of harmony with the spirit of Christ’s message and contrary to the Scriptures (Butler 1886: 392).
Early in the new century, Ellen White, the Adventist prophet, who had been absent from the U.S. for most of the previous 15 years, took up the issue. Through the use of such phrases as “I have been shown…” and “In vision I saw…,” she raised the attitudes that had been expressed to the level of a teaching within the Adventist Church. Focusing on the violence often associated then with labor struggle, she portrayed unions as controlled by Satan, as part of the cosmic struggle between God and Satan, and as playing a key role in the future in establishing the Mark of the Beast and in preventing Adventists from being able to “buy and sell” (Kistler 1984: 39-44).
Following World War I, in keeping with the nationwide trend at the time, large numbers of Adventists moved to the cities. Here they were met by demands for union dues and participation in union activities where they worked. Following passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, which permitted a labor organization to represent all employees in a bargaining unit concerning the terms and conditions of employment, they increasingly found themselves faced by two alternatives: “join the union in the shop where they worked, or seek employment elsewhere” (Schwarz 1979: 514). During the Great Depression, in particular, there were few alternative jobs available. Facing a painful dilemma, many Adventist workers turned to church leaders for direction.
In 1940 the General Conference Committee adopted a statement of the Adventist attitude towards labor which it hoped would provide a basis for securing concessions from unions. However, when it found that its efforts at friendly persuasion of union leaders proved unavailing, it voted to secure legal advice concerning the rights and privileges of a religious organization in this matter (Kistler 1984: 51-52). An official statement published in the church paper in 1941 stated that while Adventists supported the goals of labor organizations to secure proper wages, hours and working conditions, they could not join organizations that might use retaliation or violence, nor could they, since they were called to proclaim a message to “all men,” take sides with one group against another. However, the editor added, the question of whether a member chose to join a union or not was an individual matter that “should not in any way jeopardize his membership in the church or the confidence of his bretheren in him” (Wilcox 1941: 12).
In 1945 the General Conference issued a new letter addressed to both labor leaders and the U.S. Secretary of Labor. Its assertion of a right not to join unions, based on the constitutional support for liberty of conscience, suggested that the authors had received input from lawyers (McElhany and Dick 1945: 13-14). Adventists also established a Council on Industrial Relations, which prepared a “Basis of Agreement,” which was intended as a contract which Adventist workers could negotiate with employers and unions. In return for being allowed to work in “closed shops,” they would agree to contribute an amount equal to union dues and fees to the union benevolent fund, to accept whatever contract provisions were worked out between union and management as long as they did not require them to work on their Sabbath, and to be neutral in a strike, neither working nor picketing. By 1949 over 1,100 union locals in the U.S. and Canada had accepted this agreement; many others, however, remained hostile to its provisions (Kistler 1984: 56-60).
However, in the 1950s many of the union locals disavowed these agreements. In 1954 church leaders passed responsibility for the union issue to their Religious Liberty department: henceforth it would be regarded as a religious liberty issue, and the church would try to provide legal help to Adventists facing employment problems because they refused to join a union.
Adventists adopted a political strategy in 1965, when labor leaders mounted a large effort to repeal section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act because of their opposition to its provision for state right-to-work laws. Realizing that repeal would make the situation of non-unionist Adventists more difficult, the Religious Liberty Department lobbied for a conscience clause amendment that would create an escape. Although they were successful in adding an amendment to the bill, the legislation failed. Thereafter they pressed for such an amendment whenever there was relevant legislation in the offing in both state and federal legislatures. Some states enacted such laws, and the first breakthrough in Congress came in 1974, within a law that brought private health-care institutions under the National Labor Relations Act. This accomplishment led to an effort to extend their conscience clause (section 19 of the NLRA) to cover all employees. They finally met with success in this in 1980 (Kistler 1984: 63-66).
Meanwhile, the Adventist Religious Liberty Department had become involved in a series of cases in the 1970s as it endeavored to help Adventists having job problems because of their refusal to join unions and at the same time make favorable case law. These cases were usually brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as amended in 1972 in Section 701(j), arguing that the law obliged both employers and unions to make good faith efforts to honor the exemptions requested by employees with a conscientious objection to union membership unless this would result in undue hardship. Once it was amended, section 19 of the NLRA was also utilized. These cases were conclusively settled in Nottelson v. Smith (1981), Tooley v. Martin-Marietta Corp. (1981) and International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers v. Boeing (1987), which found that the accommodations requested were reasonable and did not impose undue hardship, and thereafter protected all with religious scruples against union membership.
Although the courts were shown that the Seventh-day Adventist Church “teaches that it is morally wrong to be a member of or pay dues to a labor organization” (Nottelson 1981), this was never a test of fellowship and there have, in fact, been union members among Adventists for the past several decades. Those who have taken the antiunion position seriously have tended to be more conservative members who continue to try to abide by the writings of Ellen White; they are predominantly Caucasian5. Most such Adventists tend to vote Republican and to have occupations that do not make them eligible for union membership. On the other hand, union membership is much more frequent among members of minority racial groups, who are much more likely to be employees and to vote Democrat (interviews). Coverage of the teaching on union membership in Adventist publications has declined sharply in the last 15 years, with the result that today many members are not aware of it.
Cases Flowing from Sabbath Observance
The issue of state “blue laws” was eventually raised again, under another guise, in the 1950s and early 1960s. A flurry of cases brought by sabbatarians who claimed that their businesses were harmed as a result of mandated Sunday closing challenged the constitutionality of these laws on the ground that they subjected them to unequal protection under the law. These cases were brought mainly by Jews and members of the Worldwide Church of God; Adventists did not play a leading role in this initiative. However, the mere fact that “Sunday laws” were at issue meant that the old fears surfaced among many Adventists, who were surprised to find that organized labor supported the blue laws for secular reasons and then anguished to find that labor gained Catholic support for their position. Such fears were again expressed in 1961, when the Supreme Court found the blue laws constitutional on the ground that Sunday had become a secular holiday so that the laws no longer represented a state establishment of religion, and therefore were not in conflict with the Constitution (Braunfeld v. Brown 1961). On each occasion Adventists proclaimed that the prospects for a national Sunday law had increased considerably, and lobbied accordingly. However, the editor of Liberty later interpreted Chief Justice Warren’s 1961 decision as a step away from such a law because of its secular basis (Morgan 1992: 284-295; Syme 1973: 94-104). Nevertheless, the outcome disappointed Sabbatarians.
Although the coming of the 5-day week in the 1930s had opened up many jobs to them, Adventists were still excluded from shifts which required work on Friday night or Saturday. Such pressures mounted during succeeding decades, as increasing numbers of employers sought to increase efficiency by working factories multiple shifts. They proved to be especially threatening when workers were rotated from one shift to another. However, even though this issue was much closer to the core of Adventist belief and it affected far more Adventists than either military service or union membership did, the Adventist Church was much slower to respond in a concerted fashion to the problems of members or to attempt to reduce the problem.
Although the development of the doctrine of incorporation now obliged the states to honor the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom, the first strategy adopted by Adventists was not a legal one. Instead, it piggybacked on the approach being used to support workers in trouble because of their refusal to join labor unions: the local representatives of the Council on Industrial Relations tried to negotiate solutions with employers on behalf of workers whose jobs were threatened by their Sabbath observance. Eventually, however, individual Adventists began to turn to the courts, and they were then likely to seek help from the church, which initially often arranged and paid for counsel for them.
Two Supreme Court cases used the Free Exercise Clause to address the issue of an employee who was fired for refusing to work on her Sabbath being declared ineligible for unemployment benefits. The first of these was an appeal by Adell Sherbert, who had worked a five-day week in a textile mill in South Carolina until 1959, when the work week had been changed to include Saturday for all three shifts. Her refusal to work on that day had resulted in her dismissal. When her conscientious scruples prevented her from taking new employment which would require her to violate her Sabbath, Sherbert applied for unemployment benefits, but was denied them on the ground that she had failed to accept suitable work offered to her – a decision which was affirmed by both her county court and the South Carolina Supreme Court. However, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed this decision, finding that Sherbert’s disqualification from benefits on these grounds “imposed a burden on the free exercise of her religion” (Sherbert 1963). Justice Brennan’s opinion drew attention to the fact that South Carolina law expressly shielded a Sunday worshiper from having to make the kind of choice imposed on Sherbert: “When in times of ‘national emergency’ the textile plants are authorized…to operate on Sunday, ‘no employee shall be required to work on Sunday…who is conscientiously opposed to Sunday work; and if any employee should refuse to work on Sunday on account of conscientious.. objections he or she shall not jeopardize his or her seniority…or be discriminated against in any manner.’ S.C.Code, s 64-4.”
Sherbert was the first case in which the Court upheld a free exercise claim that was not also supported by free speech concerns. As such, it propounded the first clear theory of the Free Exercise clause of the Constitution and, building on the earlier Jehovah’s Witness cases, Gobitis and Barnette, it applied the doctrine of “strict scrutiny” – the level of court concern, requiring that the state demonstrate a compelling interest if a decision running counter to a religious belief is to withstand challenge – and spelled it out. Sherbert consequently became an important precedent, cited in all relevant Free Exercise cases.
A similar case with a different wrinkle was decided by the Supreme Court in 1987. After working in a Florida jewelry store for over two years, Paula Hobbie had informed her employer that she was joining the Seventh-day Adventist Church and could no longer work scheduled shifts on Friday nights and Saturdays. When she was dismissed, she filed for unemployment compensation, but was denied on the basis of “misconduct” connected with her work. This ruling had been affirmed by the Unemployment Appeals Commission and the Florida Fifth District Court of Appeal. However, the Supreme Court, in another Brennan opinion, reversed this decision and confirmed Sherbert: “When a State denies receipt of a benefit because of conduct mandated by religious belief, thereby putting substantial pressure on an adherent to modify his behavior and violate his beliefs, that denial must be subjected to strict scrutiny and can be justified only by proof of compelling state interest” (Hobbie v. Unemployment Appeals Commission 1987). This case extended the application of Sherbert to a situation where conflict between employee and employer was caused by the former changing religious beliefs rather than the latter altering work rules.
Hobbie’s case was prepared and argued by the staff of the Legal Department of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists; indeed, it was “the first church-backed case argued in the United States Supreme Court by a church-employed attorney” (Nixon 1988: 45). Supporting amici curiae briefs were filed by an astonishingly diverse list of religious groups – including the American Jewish Congress, the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, and the Catholic League of Religious and Civil Rights—all of whom had feared that Sherbert might be reversed, for they saw its broad interpretation of the Free Exercise Clause as in their best interest.
While the Sherbert and Hobbie decisions represented a considerable advance for Adventists in protecting their right to unemployment benefits should they be fired for refusing to work on their Sabbath, clearly protection of their jobs in as many instances as possible was a more important goal. The passage of equal employment legislation eventually allowed Adventists to address some of the ramifications of this problem in the courts. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 raised the possibility that this dream would become a reality, for it prohibited an employer from discriminating against an employee on the basis of “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” However, how this was to be applied to cases where a sabbatarian refused to work on Saturday was unclear, with the result that the cases invoking it produced contradictory results (Jackson v. Veri Fresh Poultry 1969; Riley v. Bendix 1971); indeed, some cases brought by Adventists used different grounds, but without success (Martin v. Pacific Northwest Bell Telephone Company 1971; Dawson v. Mizell 1971). An amendment, Section 701(j), which was added to the Act in 1972 at the instigation of Senator Jennings Randolph, who was himself a Sabbatarian (a Seventh Day Baptist), made the Act more pertinent to this issue by requiring that an employer try to accommodate an employee’s religious scruple unless doing so would be an “undue hardship.”6
Nevertheless, the first cases that sought to define the meaning of the amendment gave contrary opinions and sometimes evenly divided courts, as one opinion was at pains to note: “We recognize that the problems arising from the fact that Seventh Day [sic] Adventists are forbidden to work on Saturdays are troublesome ones and that the courts have not been in accord in their thinking on the subject” (United States v. City of Albuquerque 1976). The key case, ultimately, proved to be Trans World Airlines v. Hardison (1977), which involved not an Adventist but a member of the Worldwide Church of God. While Hardison acknowledged that an employer must accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs and practices unless they cause undue hardship, it determined that anything beyond de minimis cost would be undue hardship. This definition was so narrow that it gave employers most of the ground: it made it difficult to build cohesive case law on this foundation, with the result that to a very great degree each succeeding case has turned on its own particular facts and circumstances.
The Hardison decision also found that employers are not obliged to violate the seniority provisions of collective bargaining agreements to protect the religious scruples of employees. Because seniority provisions often allowed workers with seniority to choose the shifts that gave them weekends off, this meant that new Adventist employees could not be accommodated.
A General Conference lawyer described Hardison to me as a “huge loss” (interview) – and, indeed, this has proved to be so. A review of the first 30 reported cases after Hardison found that it had become more difficult to win cases focusing on the weekly Sabbath, as compared with those dealing with less frequent religious holidays, because the frequency and recurring nature of the conflict made it more likely that the courts would declare this a hardship (Wetmore 1983: 23-24). Since that time, the stronger cases have tended to be settled out of court, so that they have made no contribution to case law, and most of the cases tried have been lost on the basis of undue hardship (for example, Cooper v. General Dynamics 1994, Beadle v. Tampa 1995, Cowan v. Gilless 1996); court victories have been few and less decisive (for example, Lake v. Goodrich 1988, where an Adventist won a grudging, split decision acceptance of a lower court decision when it was appealed by the employer to the Court of Appeals). It proved to be especially difficult for Sabbatarians to prevail when a collective bargaining agreement between an employer and a union representing the employees was in place: then an Adventist employee was likely to find that he/she faced “almost insurmountable difficulties” because the intransigence of the union guarding cherished seniority provisions and the effect of the Hardison decision on the employer removed any flexibility from the situation (Boothby and Nixon 1983: 50).
Three victories in 1996 gave some of the Sabbatarian lawyers hope that the tide might finally be turning. In one of these, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found that the employer – the State of California—had failed to establish undue hardship (Opuku-Boateng v. State of California 1996). Two other Adventists won cases that year in state courts as diverse as Montana and New York (New York City Transit Authority v. State of New York 1996; Russell v. Butte Silver-Bow 1997).
However, that same year a case in the Second Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals brought by Kingsley Genas, an Adventist employee of the State of New York Department of Correctional Services, against the Department and several of its officers, underlined the extent to which the Supreme Court’s decision in Employment Division v. Smith (1990) had muddied the waters. In Smith the Supreme Court had rejected the compelling state interest standard, as established in Sherbert (1963), for at least some Free Exercise challenges. It had held that the Free Exercise Clause is not offended by a generally applicable law that burdens religious practice if the burden on religion is not the object of the law, but merely the “incidental effect” of an otherwise valid provision. The Second Circuit case was complicated because it invoked both the Free Exercise Clause and case law rooted in Title VII: Genas had claimed that the department and officers had breached the Free Exercise Clause by refusing to accommodate his need to observe his Sabbath. When the defendants’ motion for summary judgment was denied, they appealed the decision, and the Court found, in this preliminary decision, that since a collective bargaining agreement had been in place whose purpose had not been to burden religion but to establish a neutral and fair method of awarding shifts (in this case, via seniority), the officers could reasonably believe that their actions were in accord with Smith: “[t]hough the duty to reasonably accommodate the religious preferences of employees has been clearly established, it has not been established that an employer acting under the terms of a collective bargaining agreement must do more to accommodate religious preferences than is required by the agreement” (Genas v. State of New York 1996). That is, on the basis of the Smith decision, the court threw out the argument based on the Free Exercise clause, and restricted the litigation to Title VII7.
Smith dismantled the protections for Sabbatarians put in place by Sherbert in cases where the action being challenged could be seen as generally applicable and neutral in scope. However, Sherbert still held where this was not the case. Congress set out to undo what was widely seen as the harm done by Smith, passing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which explicitly re-established a compelling state interest test similar to that which had been created by Sherbert. However, when its constitutionality was tested, the Supreme Court voided the law (City of Boerne v. Flores 1997).
Adventism, then, has made the least legal progress in the area of protecting the employment of its Sabbath-observing members – the area most vital to it. Generally speaking, Adventists are still excluded from shifts that work on Friday nights or Saturdays. It is likely that Adventists would have had more success in settling cases favorably if they had won the support of the labor unions, which were in a position to facilitate such things as the swapping of shifts when members were scheduled to work on their Sabbath or to protect the needs of Adventist employees in collective bargaining agreements. However, the Church’s earlier campaigns to allow its members to opt out of joining and supporting unions had alienated these potential allies, and a union certainly had no reason to go out of its way to help an employee who had opted out of union membership.
The Smith decision by the Supreme Court, and the attempt by Congress to find a legislative remedy in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, demonstrate that in recent years Congress has become more protective of religious freedom and of the interests of churches than the courts. This raises the question of why the Adventist Church does not channel more of its resources into lobbying and encourage members to become involved in politics. It may be that it feels that the likelihood of it gaining influence in this sphere is severely limited by its relatively small numbers. However, the impact of Senator Jennings Randolph, who came from the much smaller Seventh Day Baptist community, illustrates what is possible.
The Adventist Church makes no real attempt to raise the political consciousness of its membership in this area. There is irony to the fact that the decisions most favorable to religious freedom, such as Sherbert and Hobbie, were written by liberal judges, while the unfavorable ones, such as Smith, were written by the appointees of conservative presidents whom most Caucasian Adventists would have voted for (Dudley and Hernandez 1992; interviews).
Adventists fought cases focused on the Free Exercise Clause when local authorities attempted to restrict their door-to-door activities because of unusual aspects in their approach. In 1976 Adventists sought injunctive relief when their “literature evangelism” ran into problems in Laramie, Wyoming because their colporteurs received a commission on sales. Relief was granted because the colporteurs were credentialed ministers and their activities were judged to be essentially religious (Tate v. Akers 1977). In 1980 Adventists also fought a case in Albuquerque, where the City had judged their solicitation, or “Ingathering,” to be secular, and thus requiring a permit, because the funds raised helped to support such church activities as medical, community, and educational services. The Church, insisting that these activities were part of its religious mission, asked the court to declare the ordinance unconstitutional. The court agreed (Espinoza v. Rusk 1980). Ironically, Adventist participation in both door-to-door activities has declined precipitously since both decisions, because many Adventists would now be embarrassed to do things which are commonly regarded as sectarian activities.
A few cases have focused on the right of an Adventist to observe the standards of his church while in prison. For example, Rayes v. Eggers (1994) focused on the demand of the prisoners for an Adventist-sanctioned diet. Brought without legal assistance from the Church, and poorly documented, it was lost. The problems of Adventist prisoners were described to me as the kind of issue that the Adventist Church is not eager to pursue (interview). This is not because no Adventists are sentenced to prison or that jailhouse conversions to Adventism are rare. Quite the contrary: although many problems are solved through negotiations, there are a number of potential cases dealing with such issues as dietary problems, Sabbath observance problems, and difficulties with access to worship in prison. However, Church leaders are reluctant to pursue them. In part this seems to be because of a socially conservative, law and order mentality among Adventist leaders: they comment that one should expect to lose rights when one goes to prison. In part it is because church leaders often view the plaintiffs as unattractive figures: they are afraid that supporting these members would prove a public relations liability (interview). The concern of its leadership with Adventism’s public image is a reflection of the delicate position in which the Adventist Church now finds itself: while it has succeeded in reducing its tension with society, so that it is no longer viewed as so peculiar, it is by no means yet a “mainline church” with a sense of security that would allow it to feel comfortable displaying its humanity “warts and all.”
Commercial Suits by and against Adventist Institutions
The institutions of the Adventist Church – its hospitals, universities and colleges, publishing houses, health-food factories, nursing homes and retirement centers, etc. – have played a major role in reducing tension between it and society. They provided the impetus for the children of rural Adventists to press ahead with their education, so that the positions “in the Lord’s work” might be filled, and through their growth the Adventist Church put down roots in society. However, as these institutions became less separated from society, they inevitably became involved in such secular matters as commercial lawsuits. I will list three random examples: a suit against an Adventist food company over a breach of trademark law concerning the name of a product (Loma Linda Food Company v. Thomson & Taylor Spice Co 1960); a suit by Hinsdale Hospital against the Federal Department of Health and Human Services over Medicare reimbursement (Hospital Corporation v. Shalala 1995); and a suit by a food seller against a nursing home for food delivered shortly before it filed for bankruptcy protection (Reinhart Institution Foods Inc. v. Adventist Living Centers 1995).
Personal Suits against the Adventist Church and its Institutions
The growth of Adventist institutions, and the closer involvement with society that inevitably followed, also exposed Adventism to government regulation and to legal suits from government agencies designed to bring institutions into conformity with the law when church leaders resisted. These suits were usually brought at the behest of church members who had become more comfortable with secular society and the court system and, having imbibed the new sense of independence abroad in society from the 1960s onwards, were finally willing to confront their church when a problem with it proved intractable. The most important of these are a series of suits brought against the Pacific Press Publishing Association of Mountain View, California, in the 1970s.
In 1972, Merikay Silver, an editor at Pacific Press, approached the general manager asking that her salary be raised to a level commensurate with her male colleagues. He not only refused her request, but added that no woman there was receiving equal pay and as long as he headed the publishing house none ever would (Colvin 1986: 1). When informal efforts failed to resolve the dispute, Silver filed a class action suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Silver v. Pacific Press Publishing Association 1976) – the same antidiscrimination law invoked by Adventists in their efforts to retain their jobs in Sabbath employment cases. With Lorna Tobler, a co-worker, Silver also filed complaints for sex discrimination and retaliation with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (McLeod 1985).
Silver’s original request to the Pacific Press had invoked the vote of the Annual Council of the General Conference the previous year, 1971, to change the wage scale for North America to allow women to receive a “head of family” allowance if they were in fact acting as such (General Conference 1971: 39-45). Adventist leaders had originally reacted strongly against the new labor laws, seeing them as instances of the government telling the church what to do, and had sought a different solution to their need to be regarded as in compliance with the Federal regulations. However, the negotiating team, which was headed by Neal Wilson, then president of the Church in North America, was eventually persuaded to comply in this manner in order to save the Church from being seen as in opposition to the government (interview). When Pacific Press rejected Silver’s request, it was therefore in violation of the new policy. Although, as a separate corporation, it was legally free to do this, such independence by an Adventist institution was highly unusual.
Wilson claims that he tried to use the moral authority of the church leadership to encourage Pacific Press to comply with the new policy (interview). However, this was without avail. Shortly afterwards he and other Church leaders became heavily involved in the Press’s defense. Although Wilson denies it (interview), this pattern lends credence to the interpretation of one interviewee who, after reviewing the full documentary file, concluded that the policy change was an attempt by church leaders to create a paper trail that would help keep the EEOC and other government agencies from trying to force them to observe the new laws that outlawed discrimination in employment – laws that they were in fact flouting (interview).
The defense was based principally on the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. The Adventist Church’s dogged persistence in this flowed from a belief that its institutions, as religious organizations, were immune to antidiscrimination laws, and a fear of state interference that was rooted in its apocalyptic expectations of persecution at the hands of the American government. It was also motivated by the hallowed practice of supporting fellow members of the “old boys’ club” – in this case, the president of Pacific Press and the chair of its board.
Indeed, Church leaders were so determined to win the case that at the quinquennial General Conference Session (the only occasion at which changes in doctrine or the Church Manual can be voted) in Vienna in 1975 they pushed through two changes in the Manual that were designed to strengthen the hand of the Press in this case. These (1) modified the rule that only local churches can disfellowship members by creating a loose disciplinary relationship between the congregations in which a Church employee holds membership and an employing organization, so that the two would inform each other about any action against the member-employee and each consider whether the other’s action should trigger some action by itself; and (2) added to the reasons for church discipline, “Instigating or continuing legal action against the church or any of its organizations or institutions, contrary to Biblical and Ellen G. White counsel” (Colvin 1986: 300-307). Since all employees of the Pacific Press had to be members in regular standing, these changes, especially the second one, could have made it easier for Church authorities to secure the dismissal of Silver and Tobler. The president of the Press, who was senior elder of the local Adventist church, invoked the first change in moving – unsuccessfully – to have his church disfellowship Tobler (McLeod 285). The second change, however, ran into such strong opposition from Adventist lawyers in America after news of it became known there following the Session that it was excluded when the Manual was reprinted to reflect the changes made at that time (Colvin 1986: 310).
However, the Press’s court brief did claim that court suits against the church by members were doctrinally prohibited – a statement whose historical support was exaggerated (Colvin 1986: 297). Moreover, the Press used the contravention of this “doctrine” by Silver and Tobler as the ground for dismissing them. This action subsequently became the center of the EEOC charge that the Press had retaliated against them because they had filed an antidiscrimination suit based on Title VII8.
Ultimately the total number of suits flowing from this dispute grew to five, two of which were taken to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Because Silver, worn down by long delays and the emotional tension of the cases, eventually settled her suit out of court, the key case became that filed by the EEOC on behalf of Tobler (1982), which charged sex discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII. When the District Court found for Tobler, the Press appealed the case to the Court of Appeals, which upheld the lower court’s decision. It found that Congress had intended to prohibit religious organizations from discriminating among their employees, that Tobler fell under the provisions of the Act because she did not, as the Press had argued, fulfill the functions of a minister, and that the application of Title VII to the publishing house did not violate the First Amendment; moreover, even though Tobler’s dismissal was based on her violation of a church doctrine prohibiting lawsuits by members against the Church, Title VII established compelling governmental interest in eliminating employment discrimination, so that its prohibition of retaliation applied to the Press. To permit retaliation would have resulted in the withdrawal of the protection of Title VII from the employees of the many diverse Adventist institutions in the U.S. (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Pacific Press 1982). The opinion noted that if Tobler had been disfellowshipped, the case would have become immune from judicial review. However, Tobler’s local church had certified her membership as in good standing after her dismissal from employment at the Press.
Although two other decisions by the Fifth Circuit pointed in the direction taken by this decision by the time it was announced (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Mississippi College 1980; Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary 1981), this case broadened the impact of the application of Title VII to religious institutions, confirming that it could be applied constitutionally to at least some of the employees there and validating considering some of these as secular workers rather than ministers (Colvin 1986: 479-80). It affected the rights of millions of employees of religious organizations and has since been cited widely in other cases. It has also been cited frequently in other cases where government regulation of religious activity is challenged as a violation of the Establishment Clause. The case also emphasized that the absolute free exercise claim made by attorneys for the Press is not part of American constitutional law (Colvin 1986: 487, 575, 476). Adventist leaders chose not to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court because by that time it was clear that they would have lost there also, thus compounding the significance of the outcome.
The Pacific Press cases were fought during the same period as Adventists were working, in Congress and the courts, for the right of members to opt out of labor unions. The cases also followed on the heels of a period when church leaders had become openly concerned about the possibility of labor unions organizing the employees of their institutions, especially the hospitals, where the proportion of non-Adventists in the workforce was increasing rapidly. Such concerns had first been expressed in 1957, and by 1960 guidelines had been issued to hospital administrators which were designed to forestall such a development (Kistler 1984: 66-67). These fears became more pressing when amendments to the National Labor Relations Act in 1974 extended its coverage to nonprofit health-care institutions and allowed employees to vote on whether to have a union represent them. Although the amendments allowed employees to opt out of a union for religious reasons9, there was no such provision for institutions owned by churches with such objections. When employees at an Adventist-owned nursing home petitioned for an election, the National Labor Relations Board ordered an election despite objections from the nursing home: it found that Congress had intended that the Act apply to health-care institutions operated by religious institutions in general and by the Adventist Church in particular. However, although only three of the 146 employees eligible to vote were Adventists, the union lost. When a second election was scheduled at an Adventist hospital10, the Adventist Church went to court to have the election declared void and unconstitutional. However, this action was rendered moot when again the union lost the election (Wilson 1981: 18-21).
By the early 1970s church administrators were also worried about the possibility of labor problems emerging in the institutions which were usually staffed exclusively by Adventists, so that they expressed considerable concern about Adventist teachers and professional organizations:
The church asked its teachers to carefully examine professional organizations before joining or supporting them to determine whether they operated as labor unions in addition to pursuing professional objectives. As a substitute for membership in organizations that might be perceived as unions, the denomination urged Adventist educators to organize themselves into an Association of Seventh-day Adventist Educators” (Kistler 1984: 69).
The Pacific Press cases, occurring as they did against the background of these other concerns, raise the question of to what extent the Adventist anti-labor union position was now driven by the Church’s role as an employer of what had become a huge workforce, its desire to use religion to maintain low wages and the ability of the “old boys’ network” to monopolize positions of power.
Increasing numbers of other members pressed suits against their church that did not attract the intervention of government agencies. The most significant of these was brought by Carole A. Rayburn, a woman who, after earning a Ph.D. in psychology, had then completed a Master in Divinity at the Adventist Seminary. When she was denied a pastoral position, she charged the Church with – again – sexual discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When the Church was granted summary judgment in the U.S. District Court for the district of Maryland, her appeal was heard by the U.S Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit, in 1985. The Court commented that the case raised “significant questions about the application of the civil rights laws to churches” (Rayburn v. General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists 1985). It explored the difference between the Pacific Press case, where the defendant was a church-owned institution and the plaintiff, the court had decided, was not a minister, and this, where the Church itself was sued by a would-be minister.
The case highlighted the tension that had developed between the constitutional protection of freedom of religion and the attempts, through statutes, to eradicate all forms of discrimination. On the one hand, while Title VII permitted religious discrimination – religious institutions were allowed to insist on hiring their own members – it did not permit discrimination on the basis of sex, race, etc., as Pacific Press (1982) had demonstrated. On the other hand, the right of persons to believe and practice their beliefs according to conscience “is fundamental to our system,” as had been demonstrated by Sherbert (1963), and this freedom is also guaranteed to churches in their collective capacities, which must have “power to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine.” Since “ecclesiastical decisions are generally inviolate,” and “the right to choose ministers without government restriction underlies the well-being of religious community,” attempts to restrict a church’s free choice of clergy “constitutes a burden on [its] free exercise rights.”
Given the tension described, everything depended on how the court balanced the two interests. It ruled that the balance weighed in favor of the free exercise of religion: that “the introduction of government standards to the selection of spiritual leaders would significantly, and perniciously, rearrange the relationship between church and state.” That is, the Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the District Court because “state scrutiny of the church’s choice would infringe substantially on the church’s free exercise of religion and would constitute impermissible government entanglement with church authority” (Rayburn 1985).
The Rayburn decision has since been cited often in cases which have sought to apply civil rights laws to churches and church-related organizations. For example, it was cited by the U.S. Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit, in a case where a minister who had been dismissed by the Adventist Lake Region Conference alleged breach of contract because the Conference did not follow its own procedural rules. The Court held that the First Amendment barred civil review of a decision to discharge a minister even under such circumstances, and again distinguished between the role of a minister, as in Rayburn, and an employee of a publishing house as in Pacific Press (Lewis v. Seventh-day Adventist Lake Region Conference 1992).
Suits Brought by the Adventist Church
As the church leadership became more at ease with society, it increasingly adopted a corporate model of the structure of the Church. One corollary of this was the decision to trademark the name of the Church, which it completed in 198111. The purpose of this move, which came at a time when Church leaders were becoming increasingly nervous about pluralism among Adventists, was to control which groups could use the church’s name and, in particular, to prevent splinter groups or organizations which they regarded as unsavory from seeming to claim affiliation with the Church.
This was a most unusual decision within the religious polity, where we are used to multiple groups bearing the name “Baptist,” “Pentecostal,” “Methodist,” or “Catholic,” so that these names in fact signify broader “religious families.” There is also a broad “Adventist” family, whose other members, such as the Advent Christian Church, like their Millerite forebears, continue to refer to themselves as “Adventists.” Moreover, there is also a more circumscribed “Seventh-day Adventist” family, which includes such groups as the “Seventh-day Adventist Reform Movement,” dating from about 1920, and various groups of “Davidian Seventh-day Adventists,” who originally broke with the Adventist Church in the late 1930s. Because they have used the trademarked name for so long, the ability of the Adventist Church to force these groups to change names has, according to the legal doctrine of laches, vanished with the passage of time.
Consequently, when the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists brought pressure on groups using the trademarked names in the latter-1980s, these were mostly unseemly “David and Goliath” maneuvers in which the Adventist Church was cast as Goliath and took on small, recent, schismatic congregations which, without the resources to do battle in the court system, typically caved in on receipt of the initial threat. Only one of these cases, against a schismatic Hawaiian congregation, the Seventh-day Adventist Congregational Church, and its pastor, John R. Marik, reached the U.S. Court of Appeals (Ninth Circuit). But even in this case the disparity in resources was central, for the mistakes made by Marik, who tried to represent the schismatic church himself, crippled its defense (General Conference Corporation of Seventh-day Adventist v. Seventh-day Adventist Congregational Church 1989).
Much more dramatic was the suit against Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International, Inc., a “support group for gay and lesbian Seventh-day Adventists, their families and friends,” in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, which was completed in 1991. The General Conference brief showed just how difficult it was to fit the language of a statute intended for commercial regulation to the activities of a church: it described everything in terms of unfair commercial competition, making the absurd claims that competition from SDA Kinship’s newsletter was undermining its publishing empire and that Adventists were likely to contribute heavily to SDA Kinship, mistaking it for the official tithe/offering conduit. Its suit made no mention of homosexuality or that this was an organization of gay and lesbian Adventists. The latter was the real reason for the suit, for Adventist leaders were highly offended that such an unsavory group would claim they were Adventists, especially when they carried banners proclaiming their name in Gay Pride parades (Eva 1986). The antipathy of the Church was shown by the fact that this was the only such suit where it sought damages: “Exemplary, punitive, and treble damages.”
In filing this suit against an organization with fewer than 1,000 members, Church leaders expected another easy pushover. However, they failed to take the strength of the Gay Movement into account: the case was accepted by National Gay Rights Advocates, which arranged for Fullbright and Jaworski, a major legal firm, to defend Kinship on a pro bono basis. The Church lost the case, at an admitted cost of over $200,000 (Piner 1992: 64). In her opinion, Judge Mariana Pfaelzer pointed out that the term “Seventh-day Adventist” has a dual meaning, applying to the Church but also to adherents of the religion. She found that the SDA religion pre-existed the SDA Church, that the uncontested use of the name by the Reform Movement and the Davidians indicated that the term does more than suggest membership in the mother church, and that the term, as used by Kinship, merely describes that organization in terms of what it is, an international organization of Seventh-day Adventists. Consequently, she found that “as used by SDA Kinship, the terms ‘Seventh-day Adventist,’ and its acronym ‘SDA’ are generic, and are not entitled to trademark protection” (General Conference Corporation of Seventh-day Adventist v. Seventh-day Adventist Kinship, International, Inc 1991). Left with no good grounds on which to appeal the decision, and fearing a more devastating loss in the Court of Appeals, the General Conference chose not to appeal this result.
In 1996, an Adventist member offended by the fact that his Church had trademarked its name, challenged its registration. The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board of the Patent and Trademark Office found the mark to be validly and federally registered: “for a period of over 130 years, the primary significance of the designation ‘Seventh-day Adventist’ has been to identify the source or origin of religious publications and services emanating from respondent [the Seventh-day Adventist Church]” (ANN Bulletin 1996). Most members would no doubt be surprised to find the primary significance of the name of their church attached to such a commercial meaning. When appealed to the Appellate Court, this decision was upheld in a case in which the appellant failed to appear (Stocker and Perry v. General Conference Corporation of Seventh-day Adventists 1996). The decision found that while “Adventist” was generic, “Seventh-day Adventist” was not. Consequently, although this decision cannot impinge on the right of the Seventh Day Adventist Reform Movement, the Davidian Seventh-day Adventists, or Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International, Inc. to use their names, it can be used to prevent new splinter groups within the Seventh-day Adventist family of religious groups from identifying their ties to it in their names.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church in the U.S. provides an excellent example of a religious group moving from sect towards denomination over time or, as Stark and Bainbridge have defined this process, from a state of high tension with its surrounding environment to one of much lower tension. Over the past 150 years, Adventism has become far less separated from the broader society, much less different from it, and antagonism between the two has decreased markedly.
Adventist involvement in the courts has passed through phases which mark the movement of Adventism along the route from sect to denomination. The first cases, when individual Adventists were arrested for working their farms on Sundays during the second-half of the nineteenth century, were much more than an economic imposition on members who had scrupulously observed their Sabbath on the previous day: they confirmed the urgency of Adventist apocalyptic expectations. These distressing events reflected how separated Adventists were in their expectation of the imminent “end of the world,” how different they were in their selection of a day of worship and the cosmic significance which they attached to its observance, and, in the ways in which neighbors reported them to the police and they were forced to endure arrest and imprisonment, how antagonistically they were viewed by their communities. That is, these arrests and trials revealed the extent of their sectarianism, of their tension with society. This confirmation of their apocalyptic expectations, together with the absence at that time of legal remedies for their plight, resulted in a fairly passive response to these problems posed them by the legal system.
Then followed a period of some decades when the tension between Adventism and its social and political environment began to lessen, as Adventists built institutions and sought accreditation for them, fought politically to delay what they believed to be the fulfillment of the last sign heralding the return of Christ, changed their position on military service from conscientious objection to noncombatancy, and began to experience upward mobility. This time of transition was marked by the almost complete absence of Adventists as such from the courts.
Beginning in the late 1930s, there began a long period during which tension between Adventism and society was sharply reduced. It began most dramatically with the establishment of a close relationship between the Adventist Church and the American military via the Medical Cadet Training Program, but was also pushed forward by changes exterior to Adventism such as the creation of a noncombatant service classification in the Selective Service Act, and by the Supreme Court’s decision upholding religious liberty for Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Barnette case and Roosevelt’s inclusion of “Freedom of Religion” among his four basic freedoms during World War II. These changes were marked by the creation of what was to become the legal department within the General Conference and by the reappearance of court cases in which Adventists as such were involved. In these cases, which focused initially on naturalization and military service classification issues, they were, more often than not, successful. One of these cases, (Girouard 1946), took Adventism to the Supreme Court for the first time.
The years from the Korean War through the Vietnam War continued the sharp relaxation in tension, with dramatic symbols such as the appointment of Adventist military chaplains, the establishment of a special military camp where noncombatants received their basic training and Adventists formed the majority, involvement in a biological warfare research program designed by the military especially for Adventists, the acceptance of government grants by Adventist hospitals and educational institutions, and, ultimately, a retreat from Adventism’s commitment to noncombatancy in military service. In the courts, this trend was symbolized by a major Supreme Court free exercise case (Sherbert 1963), which granted Sabbatarians fired for reasons of conscience the right to unemployment benefits.
The period since the Vietnam War has been marked in the courts by the multiplication of the number of cases brought by Adventists, which have thus celebrated and consolidated Adventism’s new, much more comfortable relationship with society. The General Conference has concurrently restructured and expanded its legal department and sharply increased the proportion of cases litigated in-house12. In the cases of this period the courts have extended the protection of unemployment benefits for those dismissed because of Sabbath conflicts to new converts, protected members with a conscientious objection to union membership, and recognized the right of Adventists to engage in door-to-door activity. However, the majority of cases have focused on attempts to preserve the jobs of Sabbatarians through application of the antidiscrimination clauses of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act – attempts which have been relatively ineffective because of a narrow interpretation given by the courts to the escape clause that accommodation should not cause an employer “undue hardship.” That is, although the coming of the five-day week removed many of the problems faced by Sabbatarians, the increasing use of shift work in recent decades presents some Adventists with serious problems.
Throughout most of the history of Adventism, members who felt aggrieved by their church had little recourse: there was no effective internal mechanism for achieving justice available, except perhaps, during her lifetime, an attempt to persuade Ellen White, Adventism’s charismatic figure, to intervene on their behalf, and the Adventist community was so isolated that it was almost unthinkable to seek secular solutions. The institutional church represented such authority that such members were usually cowed into submission before it. However, as members became more comfortable with the broader society and its courts, and increasingly independent of church control, they became more willing to initiate suits against their church and its institutions when they felt wronged by them. In some cases, such as Pacific Press, they turned for help to government agencies, which joined them in their efforts to enforce statutes outlawing discrimination on the basis of gender, race, etc13.
Adventist institutions have played a key role in accommodating Adventism to society: most of them were obliged to come under government regulation; the survival of the hospitals, in particular, depended on their attracting patients from their communities; and the staffing needs of all institutions encouraged members to seek higher levels of education. Their participation in the broader society, and especially in selling their products and services there, led many of these institutions into disputes which had to be settled in the courts.
The denominationalizing of Adventism was reflected in, and in turn influenced by, its involvement in the courts. As it moved from sect towards denomination, it became more compatible with formal methods of dispute resolution. As part of this process it developed an institutional legal capacity and familiarity, and then a growing ease, with the legal system, which it then used with rapidly increasing frequency.
Perhaps the most striking symbol of the Adventist Church’s accommodation to its environment was its decision in 1981 to trademark its name. The specter of this Church, whose apocalyptic had led it to expect persecution at the hands of the U.S., making use of the legal system to attack both schismatic Adventist groups and disapproved organizations of church members, represents a dramatic shift in its position. The cases charging such groups with breach of trademark, deceptive trade practices, unfair competition, and false advertising demonstrate that the church leadership sees itself as entrenched within the capitalist economy; indeed, it has adopted a corporate model for the church itself. This shift is further confirmed by the General Conference’s move a decade ago to a corporate park in Silver Spring, Maryland, and by a recommendation brought to its Annual Council in 1994 that the General Conference President be recognized as the “chief executive officer” of the Church (Medley 1994: 6).
The changing participation patterns of Seventh-day Adventists in the U.S. Courts are therefore excellent indicators of shifts over time in the level of tension between Adventism and the surrounding society. They thus represent road signs along its route from sect towards denomination.
The author wishes to thank the Office of General Counsel of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists for supplying legal information, the National Endowment for the Humanities for two fellowships which provided time for data gathering, PSC-CUNY which helped with travel funds, and the Louisville Institute for a fellowship which provided time for data analysis.
- It found that while the First Amendment guaranteed freedom of religious belief, it did not necessarily protect freedom for any sort of practice and behavior (Mauss 1994: 21; Firmage and Mangrum 1988).
- Much of the material in this section is drawn from Lawson 1996.
- By 1892 about 50 members had been convicted and 30 of these imprisoned.
- The draft was continued without a break from the beginning of the Korean War in 1951 through 1973.
- Although the purpose of Senator Jennings Randolph in introducing the 1972 amendment that became Section 701(j) of the Act was to apply it more readily to Sabbatarians whose jobs were threatened, the principle it established, that employers should accommodate the consciences of employees except where this would cause undue hardship, proved relevant also to cases where employees held a conscientious objection to union membership.
- Nottelson and Tooley were both Adventists, but Nichols, the employee in Boeing, was not. The latter decision built upon Tooley.
- However, the following reminiscence by a General Conference lawyer illustrates the diversity of opinion on this issue among Adventists: “I remember going to visit a labor leader in New York City who was puzzled by our members. In a nursing home that had been unionized, one SDA was the union representative, and another refused to join the union. The first was the wife of a pastor and the second was a local elder. Both were black.”
- Randolph stated, when speaking to the amendment, that its purpose was to “resolve many of the issues left open by prior ‘Sabbatarian’ cases, where employees had refused to work on their Sabbath and requested that their employers accommodate them.”
- Genas has since been reinstated in his position with accommodation of his Sabbath observance, and negotiations are proceeding towards a favorable out-of-court financial settlement.
- The claim of a religious belief against litigation is different from the usual Free Exercise claims that laws require petitioners to do something against their belief in the sense that the former focuses not on something the petitioner feels he cannot do, but would constrain someone else – an employee or member – from suing the church (Colvin 1986: 496).
- See above.
- Hackettstown Community Hospital, in New Jersey.
- The irony of this case is that the position had been awarded to another woman.
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In Re Adventist Living Centers, 52 F. 3d 159 (7th Cir. 1995)
Beadle v. Tampa, 42 F. 3d 663 (11th Cir. 1995)
Braunfeld v. Brown, 366 U.S. 599 (1961)
Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296 (1940)
City of Boerne v. Flores, No. 95-2074, 1997 WL 345322 (U.S. June 25, 1997)
Cooper v. Oak Rubber Company, 15 F. 3d 1166 (6th Cir. 1994)
Cowan v. Gilless, 81 F. 3d 160 (6th Cir. 1996)
Dawson v. Mizell, 35 F. Supp. 511 (USDC, ED, VA, 1971)
Employment Division v. Smith, 110 S. Ct. 1595 (1990)
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Silver v. Pacific Press Publishing Association, 535 F. 2d 1182 (9th Cir. 1976)
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Mississippi College, 626 F. 2d 477 (5th Cir. 1980)
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 651 F. 2d 277 (5th Cir. 1981)
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Pacific Press, 676 F. 2d 1272 (9th Cir. 1982)
Espinoza v. Rusk, 634 F. 2d 477 (10th Cir. 1980)
Everson v. Board of Education, 33 U.S. 1 (1947)
Genas v. State of New York, 75 F. 3d 825 (2d Cir. 1996)
General Conference Corporation of Seventh-day Adventist v. Seventh-day Adventist Congregational Church, 887 F. 2d 228 (9th Cir. 1989)
General Conference Corporation of Seventh-day Adventist v. Seventh-day Adventist Kinship, International, Inc. (USDC, CD CA, 1991. Case No. CV 87-8113 MRP, unentered)
Giroud v. United States, 328 U.S. 61 (1945).
Hinsdale Hospital Corporation v. Shalala, 50 F.3d 1395 (7th Cir. 1995)
Hobbie v. Unemployment Appeals Commisssion, 480 U.S. 136 1987
International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers v. Boeing, 833 F. 2d 165 (9th Cir. 1987)
Jackson v. Veri Fresh Poultry, Inc., 304 F. Supp. 1276 (District Court, E.D. Louisiana 1969)
In Re King, 46 F. 905; Circuit Court, W.D. Tennessee (1891)
In Re Kinloch, 53 F. Supp. 521 (District Court, W.D. Washington 1944)
Lake v. Goodrich, 837 F. 2d 449 (11th Cir. 1988)
Lewis v. Seventh-day Adventist Lake Region Conference, 978 F. 2d 940 (6th Cir. 1992)
Loma Linda Food Company v. Thomson & Taylor Spice Co., 279 F. 2d 522 (U.S. Ct of Customs & Patent Appeals 1960)
In Re Losey, 39 F. Supp. 37 (District Court, E.D. Washington 1941)
Marshall v. Pacific Union Conference, 21 F.E.P. 846 (District Court, C.D. California 1977)
Martin v. Pacific Northwest Bell Telephone Company, 441 F. 2d 1116 (9th Cir. 1971)
Minersville School District v. Gobitis, 310 U.S. 586 (1940)
New York City Transit Authority v. State of New York, 651 N.Y.S. 375 (Court of Appeals of New York 1996)
Nottelson v. Smith, 643 F. 2d 445 (7th Cir. 1981)
Opoku-Boateng v. California, 95 F. 3d 1461 (9th Cir. 1996)
Palko v. Connecticut, 302 U.S. 319 (1937)
Rayburn v. General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 772 F. 2d 1164 (4th Cir. 1985)
Rayes v. Eggers, 36 F.3d 110 (8th Cir. 1994)
Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145 (1879)
Riley v. Bendix, 330 F. Supp. 583 (District Court, M.D. Florida 1971)
Russell V. Butte Silver-Bow, Montana Human Rights Commission, unreported (1997)
Sherbert v. Verner, 398 U.S. 1963
Stocker and Perry v. General Conference Corporation of Seventh-day Adventists, 95 F. 3d 1168 (Fed. Cir. 1996)
Tate v. Akers, 565 F. 2d 1166 (10th Cir. 1977)
Tooley v. Martin-Marietta, 648 F. 2d 1239 (9th Cir. 1981)
Trans World Airlines v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977)
United States v. Bland, 283 U.S. 636 (1931)
United States v. City of Albuquerque, 545 F. 2d 110 (10th Cir. 1976)
United States v. Macintosh, 283 U.S. 605 (1931)
United States v. Schwimmer, 279 U.S. 644 (1929)
West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943)