Reports reaching Asbert News Network are that some staff members of the Customs and Excise Services here have been told that approval of their “requests for time-off on Saturdays for religious purposes” has not been granted.
Sources say that the issue is a time worn one that has cropped up before, always with “pretty much the same outcome.”
ANN reached out to several persons for their take on the recent decision as captured in a March 16 memorandum sent from the Chief Personnel Officer to the Comptroller of Customs and Excise.
That memo reads, “I refer to requests submitted on behalf of Customs Officers who are members of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, on the above subject.
“Please be informed that the Public Service Commission has not granted approval to such requests. The Commission is of the opinion that all Officers should comply with the hours of work, which have been established for the Customs and Excise Services.
“Additionally, the Commission does not support special arrangements that are in place by the Customs and Excise Services, for some staff, to be granted Saturdays off. Please be guided accordingly.”
As we understand it, the Public Affairs Religious Liberty (PARL) department of one local Seventh Day Adventist church advocates for the religious freedoms of Adventist converts who may find that such liberties are threatened.
The PARL department at this particular church is directed by Pastor Terrence Haynes, who for reasons unknown was “unable to make any comments” on the matter at hand. A national PARL council is also active here and with Counsel Meisha Cruickshank currently serving as president.
“The case concerning the workers at Customs was referred to the Seventh Day Adventist Church of which I am a member,” Counselor Jemarlie John told ANN.
According to John, “that council has the benefit of 3 lawyers and other legally trained individuals who have extensive training and experience in human resources and employment law.”
“While it is not the intention of the Council to initiate legal action, the SDA Church through its PARL department has successfully brought actions on behalf of its members regionally and worldwide. PARL stands ready to have the action taken against its members reviewed by a Court of law; if negotiation fails to bring an amicable resolution in the best interest of all involved.
“That action is a gross violation of fundamentally guaranteed rights under the Constitution and will be dealt with, with utmost urgency,” the relatively new lawyer continued.
Public Service Commission Chair, Cecil ‘Blazer’ Williams told us, “that is nothing new – that has been happening now – it’s been a number of years they’ve been writing us.”
A well-placed source at the Customs and Excise Services explained that the SDA Church would customarily write to the government’s human resource management department, the Public Service Commission, “every-time there’s a new convert.” These letters would essentially request that the authorities recognize the new convert’s right to observe their day of worship, traditionally Saturdays.
According to our source, “the memo itself has nothing to do with the Customs per se…. The Service Commission is saying basically that they have denied the requests and that members of staff should adhere to the hours of work at the Customs because obviously as more and more people convert to Adventist it will basically affect our delivery of the service.
“This is just an instruction given to the Comptroller based on requests made to Service Commission, so once the instructions are given we have to circulate it to staff. But I think it’s early days yet and those persons who this memo will affect will get together and they will sort it out.”
The decision, the source made clear, was made by the Chief Personnel Officer as opposed to a policy developed and instituted by the management of the Customs and Excise Services.
Williams, the Public Service Commission Chief told us, “the Commission’s take has always been that we will not discriminate against anybody whether in their favor or not in relation to their religion. We are not making decisions religion based on race, religion or ethnic origin.
“In other words what we are saying is this; if Seventh Day Adventists don’t want to work on a Saturday in the public service so too can other people whose Sabbath is on a Sunday. And we are not, therefore, going to make any distinctions between anybody on the basis of their religion.
ANN queried whether or not this was not “a denial of religious rights.” To which the practicing attorney responded, “no, no, no; that could never be considered denial of religious rights. If we begin to do that we have a serious problem on our hands. Everybody from any other religion can say they’re not working on Sundays and close down the whole country. Close down the hospital, close down wherever, Customs and everything.”
As to the CPO’s allusion to the Customs and Excise Services’ informal acknowledgement of Adventist staff members’ right to observe their Sabbath, Williams noted, “if that is practiced at Customs it is not part of the policy of the government or the policy of the Public Service Commission.”
A sentiment which our source confirmed; he said, “since this correspondence, we’ve realized, it seems as if past comptrollers would have acted contrary to the instructions from Service Commission and allowed one or two persons Saturday off.”
Although the source would not say the precise number of officers affected by the Service Commission’s continued denial, ANN was reliably informed that at least 4 of the 7 Customs Officers stationed at the Argyle International Airport are practicing Adventists.
Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, self –acknowledged patron to the Bellevue congregation of Seventh Day Adventists per his North Central Windward constituency donation – the parcel of land upon which that church was built – weighed in on the issue via an ANN exclusive interview.
Dr. Gonsalves claimed to be unaware of the recent development but proffered, “I’d have to find out what happened. I believe what’s probably at the back of this is a practical issue. Saturday is a day when people work and clearly you have to balance between what you need to do on that Saturday and what you rightly call people’s religious rights – the freedom to practice their religion.
“So it may be that they may have to work out practically to balance both things, that they have a certain minimum number of persons who are Seventh Day Adventist on the staff and try to organize it in a way that they work other days and get that particular day off. I’m sure that that is something they can work out.”
Reiterating his ignorance of the case, the Prime Minister committed to investigate “the factual basis of the story” while positing, “for all the years they must have been dealing with it sensibly unless they now have such a large number of Seventh Day Adventists now working there that it’s difficult for them to work out the special arrangement without disrupting the service.”
The Public Service Commission Chairman, when asked whether the special arrangements practiced by the Customs department would be discontinued, pointed out, “we have not made a concerted decision to stop them or not.
“What we are saying basically, we as the Service Commission do not support that kind of action because it is discriminating against other people who are working in the Customs department and who have their Sabbath on a Sunday…. We’ve made that policy decision years upon years ago that we’re not discriminating against people’s race, political ideological position or what. ”
Prime Minister Gonsalves delivered congratulatory remarks at the opening ceremony of the new Seventh Day Adventist headquarters on Easter Sunday last year. He underscored his appreciation for the SDA brethren; a fact he said was reflected in the discriminatory practices against Adventists which he corrected.
He said, “You have given so much to this community. Our own government has been blessed with Sir Louis, the longest serving attorney general ever Judith Jones-Morgan, we have Deborah Charles with us. When Sir Louis took a sabbatical he was replaced by Maxwell Charles another Seventh Day Adventist….Over the years you were discriminated against in some ways which is really difficult to understand in the modern period.”
Prime Minister Gonsalves named the disparity in salary once suffered by graduates of “the Caribbean Union College subsequently the University of the Southern Caribbean” – Adventists in the main – as one anomaly he had rectified early in his government’s tenure.
“I also found that the Seventh Day Adventist was not given appropriate recognition on many, many issues. Some small issues it may appear. Sir Louis can tell you when a function is to be held by the State on a Friday evening, I will always say you cannot hold the function on the Friday evening because we will be excluding 13/14 percent of the population and we can’t do that.
“Anytime in Parliament and we’re there on a Friday by 5 O’ clock I get up, however important the business, and I ask that the House be adjourned or the sitting suspended for another day to permit those who are Seventh Day Adventists to leave to get home in time for sun down.
“…. There are a number of ways in which there were prejudices and I think the church has recognized that I am extremely sensitive to these matters. Very, very sensitive.”
As for the potential litigation, we’ve been advised, this would not be “the first time the PARL department is engaged in legal work. The challenge to the buggery law and the gross indecency laws that are currently before the Court is also part of the work currently being done by the PARL department.
“The church filed an application to be joined as interested parties. That application was granted and several churches are represented by the Seventh Day Adventist church with Meisha Cruikshank and Mandella Campbell-Peters as lead advocates in that matter.
“The church joined those proceedings precisely because of religious liberty reasons so I hope that Counsel Williams is not carelessly assuming that we will sit idly by while the religious freedoms of our members are trampled underfoot.”