Estate of Thornton v. Caldor, 472 U.S. 703 (1985)

Estate of Thornton v. Caldor is an important case because it limited the ability of states to require private employers to accommodate the religious beliefs of employees. In Estate of Thornton, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Connecticut statute that required private employers to allow employees to take their Sabbath day off regardless of which day that was. Some scholars consider Estate of Thornton to be part of a ‘‘one-two punch’’ impacting those whose religious beliefs or practices require them to refrain from work on the Sabbath. The first ‘‘punch’’ came in the early 1960s when the Supreme Court upheld ‘‘Sunday closing laws’’ against challenges under the Establishment Clause (McGowan v. Maryland [1961]), and under the Free Exercise Clause (Braunfeld v. Brown [1961]. These laws required businesses to close on Sunday, even though this could have a profound impact on religious minorities such as Jews and Seventh Day Adventists, who would also have to close their stores on Saturday, thus effectively closing those businesses for the entire weekend. In fact, the Connecticut law in question was part of its ‘‘Sunday closing law,’’ and was an attempt to accommodate those who would be forced to work on their Sabbath. The Connecticut Supreme Court struck down the general Sunday closing provisions of the law under the Connecticut Constitution, but the provision requiring employers to allow employees to take their Sabbath day off was not challenged in that case.

In an opinion by Chief Justice Burger, the Court applied the Lemon test and held that the Connecticut law violated the Establishment Clause. The Lemon test requires that a law have a secular purpose, a primary effect that neither advances or inhibits religion, and that the law not excessively entangle government and religion. The Court held the Connecticut law violated this test because the statute’s primary effect was to advance a ‘‘particular religious practice.’’ The Court pointed out that the law gave employees the absolute power to designate their Sabbath day, and to take off on that day if required by religious concerns. The Court also noted that the law had no exceptions based on employer necessity. Therefore, employees could not be penalized for taking their Sabbath day off even if doing so caused the employer significant economic harm, forced the employer to close down its business, or forced other workers, including those with greater seniority under a valid seniority system, to cover for employees who took their Sabbath day off. Moreover, only those who asserted religious reasons for taking the day off were protected under the law. Thus, other employees with a valid reason for taking the day off would not receive similar consideration under the law.

Many who have criticized this decision have done so because when combined with the ‘‘Sunday closing law’’ cases Estate of Thornton could lead to a regime where the dominant faith’s Sabbath is accommodated and arguably preferred by government, while government is prevented from requiring private entities to accommodate those who are negatively effected by the government preference. After Estate of Thornton, states cannot protect employees who are religiously compelled to take their Sabbath day off by requiring employers to allow them to do so. The critics suggest that in light of the ‘‘Sunday closing cases’’ this result favors mainstream Christianity.

FRANK S. RAVITCH

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Braunfeld v. Brown, 366 U.S. 599 (1961)
  • Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971)
  • McGowan v. Maryland, 366 U.S. 420 (1961)

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