Justice William O. Douglas Said It Best

Most people assume separation of church and state means people will not be paid unemployment by the state job services if they quit for religious reasons.


Several states practice paying unemployment benefits to Seventh Day Adventists who quit because they refuse to work on Saturday. The case law in these states varies, but usually the reasons to award unemployment benefits to Seventh Day Adventists is based on a change in job duties, such as being asked to move from one work task to another which involves manufacturing munitions, or the inability to find work at all.

It should be noted that these court decisions do not grant the same opportunities to those with Sunday sabbaths.

In North Dakota (File No. 52-2012-CV-00034), Seventh Day Adventists are routinely granted unemployment benefits for resigning when they are asked to work on Saturday. Even though the employee has made no comment about not working Saturdays when being hired. Even though the employee is  told when hired that he or she would eventually have to work on Saturday. Even though the employee has many job opportunities besides the one resigned from. Even when the employee begins work somewhere else the week after resigning. See

The Supreme Court decision of Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398 (1963) is often held up as the seminal decision on this issue.

Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas was noted for his defense of civil rights. That’s what makes his comments about paying Seventh Day Adventists unemployment for religious reasons merit careful consideration:

The case we have for decision seems to me to be of small dimensions, though profoundly important. The question is whether the South Carolina law which denies unemployment compensation to a Seventh-day Adventist who, because of her religion, has declined to work on her Sabbath, is a law “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion as those words are used in the First Amendment….

This case is resolvable not in terms of what an individual can demand of government, but solely in terms of what government may not do to an individual in violation of his religious scruples. The fact that government cannot exact from me a surrender of one iota of my religious scruples does not, of course, mean that I can demand of government a sum of money, the better to exercise them. For the Free Exercise Clause is written in terms of what the government cannot do to the individual, not in terms of what the individual can exact from the government.

Religious beliefs, no matter how sincere, are personal reasons.  They should not form the basis for awarding unemployment benefits. Period.

From my perspective, the North Dakota legislators should spend less time quoting Bible verses in defense of legislation which violates federal law and start dealing with the genuinely problematical issues in this state.




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