Discussion Question: Would an official Sunday “day of rest” alienate believers who observe a different day of worship?
The European Sunday Alliance — a network of 65 civil society organizations, trade unions and Churches— recently made a pitch for “work free Sundays” to the European Union’s Economic and Social Committee in Brussels. The newly formed Alliance argued that a common day of rest would result in healthier families, a more cohesive society, and a more balance lifestyle for everyone. Does this call for an official day of rest marginalize the millions of European Muslims, Jews, and Seventh-day Adventists who observe a day other than Sunday as their day of worship?
Most people would enthusiastically agree that a weekly day of rest is important to a healthy and balanced lifestyle. However, a designated day of rest is intrinsically tied to religion, both historically and presently. This raises significant concerns when the state chooses to legislate a specific rest day. In so doing, it enlarges the rights of one religious viewpoint at the expense of all other worldviews, including non-religious belief.
This is the challenge arising out of the European Sunday Alliance’s push for legislation protecting Sunday. At their Expert Conference held on June 20, 2011, it was stated: “Why Sunday? . . . The reasoning is clear: In Europe, where we live, the Christian tradition was established, and Sunday has been guaranteed for everyone, believers and unbelievers, as a day of rest.”1
On its face, a designated weekly day of rest seems equally beneficial to all. However, should the push for legislation protecting Sunday succeed, this would not be the case. The Supreme Court of Canada recognized this dilemma in R v Big M Drug Mart Ltd. Chief Justice Dickson wrote: “The theological content of the legislation remains as a subtle and constant reminder to religious minorities within the country of their differences with, and alienation from, the dominant religious culture.”2
This inequality and discrimination arises for several reasons. First, requiring a Jew, Muslim, or Seventh-day Christian to refrain from work on Sunday means that to also keep their own rest day, they must refrain from work for two days. They are therefore at an economic disadvantage compared with mainstream Christians, an inequality solely based on their religious views.
Secondly, forcing members of other faiths, and those who hold no religious views at all, to adhere to a mainstream Christian day of rest is imposing religious observance. As such, it violates freedom of conscience. In the case cited above, the Supreme Court of Canada stated: “[W]hatever else freedom of conscience and religion may mean, it must at the very least mean this: government may not coerce individuals to affirm a specific religious belief or to manifest a specific religious practice for a sectarian purpose.”3
When the state is allowed to wade into religious and theological debate by choosing one view over all others, it abdicates its role as impartial protector. It is then working on a principle held by other governments that have mixed state with religion (or anti-religion). That principle appears benign as it initially operates to simply marginalize non-majoritarian worldviews. However, that same principle eventually leads to oppression. The only safe way for the state to proceed is by upholding civil and religious freedom.
“Tyranny of the majority,” as coined by Alexis de Tocqueville, is something we must be wary of within a democracy. And what facet of life has seen more tyranny than religion and conscience in the history of humankind? We must ensure that freedom and equality with respect to both religion and conscience continue to be of fundamental importance to society and protected at all costs.
Written in partnership with Carmelle Bussey, Seventh-day Adventist Church in Canada
1 “Experiences and Views of Other Partners” (The Added Value of Synchronized Free Time delivered at the European Sunday Alliance for Free-Sundays Expert Conference, Brussels, Belgium, 20 June 2011), [unpublished].
2 R v Big M Drug Mart Ltd,  1 SCR 295,  SCJ No 17 at para 97.
3 Ibid at para 123.
Author: Grace Mackintosh
Grace Mackintosh is General Counsel and Director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Canada. She is a published author, and prior to her move to Ontario in early 2009, she worked as legal counsel with Miller Thomson LLP in Calgary, Alberta representing clients with respect to constitutional, government and human rights law. Grace also served at the New Brunswick Human Rights Commission for three years, from 2001 to 2004, where she developed human rights policy and made public presentations on behalf of the Commission. She is currently involved in several religious freedom public awareness projects addressing national and international issues.