The U.S. Department of Justice has filed a religious discrimination lawsuit against the City of Lansing for the alleged firing of a Lansing Seventh-day Adventist Church member who refused to work on the Sabbath, a civil rights violation. Photo: iStock
In the complaint filed on July 15, 2022, Sylvia says she was hired as a detention officer in 2018 after notifying officials in the police and human resources departments that she was unavailable to work from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday. Rather than taking steps to accommodate her, the city fired Sylvia almost immediately.
The DOJ is seeking backpay with interest, as well as compensatory damages for Sylvia. Additionally, it seeks to have a judge issue an injunction preventing the city from discriminating against employees on the basis of religion and order the city to develop and implement policies that would prevent religious discrimination.
In a news report, City of Lansing Attorney Jim Smiertka denies the allegation stating, “We do not believe that what was stated is consistent with the facts and the law as we know it.”
According to a DOJ news release, “Religious discrimination and intolerance have no place in the workplace today,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement. “Employees should not have to choose between their religion and their livelihood, particularly when the employer can accommodate their religious beliefs."
According to the complaint, Sylvia was interviewed for the detention officer position in Dec. 2017 and during her interview, she informed them that she wouldn't be able to work from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset in observance of the Sabbath as a Seventh-day Adventist.
Sylvia advanced to a second interview in February 2018 and during that interview, she was again asked about scheduling. She explained that she had a flexible schedule and could work different schedules, but in stating that she was flexible, Sylvia meant that she was flexible outside of her observance of the Sabbath.
Sylvia was offered and accepted the position in June. After reviewing her work schedule on her first day, June 18, she noticed that she had been scheduled to work on Saturday, June 23, 2018, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Sylvia restated that she couldn't work Saturdays. After a series of meetings, on June 21, 2018, she received a termination letter, informing her that “effective June 20, 2018, the City of Lansing is terminating your employment due to you not being able to meet the job requirements of the Detention Officer position.”
Shortly before her termination, Sylvia contacted the office of the Lake Union Public Affairs and Religious Liberty, which advocates for members facing issues such as Sabbath-accommodation. Lake Union’s PARL director Nicholas Miller responded by sending a letter and calling the City’s HR office to see if the decision could be reversed. When they would not budge, he was left with no choice but to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
After an investigation, the EEOC found cause to believe that discrimination had taken place. Usually under those circumstances, Miller reports, the agency will issue a right to sue letter that allows the victim to file a lawsuit with a private attorney. Miller explains that in a small number of particularly worthy or important cases the federal government itself, through the Department of Justice, will sue to vindicate the victim’s rights. That is what has happened in Sylvia’s case.
“This is an exciting development for Sylvia,” says Miller, “as after nearly three years of nothing happening, we had thought that her case was dead in the water.”
Sylvia’s story was published in the Herald in Oct. 2020, where we reported that standing for God might not bring short term success or vindication, but it is nevertheless important to be faithful.
“The Lord had blessed her with a new and more satisfying job working with at-risk children, but we thought that vindication for her Sabbath convictions might not come in this world,”
Miller continues. “But apparently the delay in the case investigation was due to the pandemic slowdown. Now, rather unexpectedly, Sylvia faces the prospect of perhaps having her Sabbath convictions respected and protected in this life after all.”
As her case moves forward, please remember her and her case in your prayers.
Debbie Michel serves as the Lake Union Conference Communication director and Lake Union Herald editor.