IT WAS Dec. 25, 1992, and for Kathleen Pielech and Patricia Reed, betting clerks at a Raynham greyhound track, going to work was out of the question. Observant Roman Catholics, they celebrate Christmas as a holy day of obligation, and they required the day off to honor the birth of Jesus.
But for George Carney, the race track's owner, letting the two women have the night off was equally out of the question. Christmas is one of his busiest nights of the year, when the number of bets surges way above normal. With the greyhound industry struggling to keep afloat, Dec. 25 was one night he couldn't afford to be short-staffed.
On Dec. 18, Carney notified all regularly scheduled employees that they would be expected to work as usual on Christmas night. When Pielech and Reed asked for the holiday off, he denied their request. On Dec. 25, they didn't show up for work. Carney fired them the next day.
A tale of two devout Christians, sacrificing for their faith? It might have been -- if the story had ended there.
But rather than accept their firing with dignity and look for other employment, Pielech and Reed did what everyone does in 1990s America. They sued. They hired a lawyer, claimed religious discrimination, and demanded compensation. If a price had to be paid for their religious scruples, they argued, their employer should be the one to pay it. They insisted on the right to follow their conscience -- and to make someone else pick up the tab.
When the trial court threw out their case, they appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court. Last week, that court -- citing problems with the wording of the Massachusetts anti-discrimination statute -- ruled against them as well. Overwrought talk about religious liberty has filled the air ever since.
"The judges," wailed Reed, "have decided that having religious liberty in this state is unconstitutional. It's un-American!" Pielech's lawyer demanded new laws "so that justice may finally prevail" for these "martyrs to the cause of religious liberty." Politicians of both parties are racing to come up with statutory language that can pass judicial muster. "This country," lectured Gov. William F. Weld on Tuesday as he offered his version, "was founded on religious freedom. Massachusetts in particular has a rich history of pilgrim journeys and prophetic voices."
Well, so it does. But when did religious liberty come to mean forcing private employers to absorb the expense of their employees' acts of faith? Freedom of religion guarantees Kathleen Pielech and Patricia Reed the right to worship as they see fit, unmolested by any government agent. It does not guarantee them the right to have the government compel their boss to give them a day off.
"Martyrs to the cause of religious liberty"? Really, some lawyers will say anything. St. Peter was a martyr. Rabbi Akiva was a martyr. The Quakers hanged in Puritan Boston were martyrs. Martyrs are tortured and killed because they refuse to abandon their faith. Pielech and Reed were fired from a job at the race track because they didn't show up for work.
The new law being demanded by the plaintiffs and the pols would require employers to reconfigure their businesses to accommodate every worker's religious custom, however outlandish or bizarre. An employee who finds any job requirement offensive to his "sincere religious belief" would be free to disregard it. Employers would be allowed an escape hatch only in cases of "undue hardship" -- and only if they could prove it in court.
This is not right. If the law protects workers from having to bow to their employer's religious doctrines, how can it subordinate employers to the religious practices of their workers? It is one thing to forbid hiring and firing on the basis of religion. It is something entirely different -- and entirely wrong -- to forbid hiring and firing on the basis of an employee's willingness to do his job.
Law students are taught that hard cases make bad law. This one is no exception. Getting fired because you won't work on a holy day is indeed a hard case. But for every sour and greedy Scrooge who insists that Dec. 25 is just another workday, there are thousands of decent employers who bend over backward to accommodate their workers' beliefs. The last thing employees and their bosses need is a law allowing "sincere religious belief" to trump every job description. That can only agitate workplaces, spawn frivolous litigation, and inflame religious resentment. No one will benefit except the lawyers. Least of all the devout.
The vast majority of American employers are men and women of good will. The vast majority of employees will never have to choose between faith or a paycheck. Pielech and Reed, to their great credit, refused to ignore the sanctity of Christmas. But when they decided to use their conscience as a bludgeon against their employer, they gave up the moral high ground they had staked. Our system guarantees freedom of worship; it doesn't guarantee that fidelity to one's religion will always be cost-free. When there are costs, the highest mark of devotion is to bear them with grace and good cheer. To rush into court and demand that someone else pay the price of your faith hardly honors the name of God.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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