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In Portugal, top court grants two Adventists Saturdays off from work

Decision comes after years of Religious Liberty proponents working with government officials

In Portugal, top court grants two Adventists Saturdays off from work

Paulo Sérgio Macedo is Public Affairs and Religious Liberty director for the denomination's Portuguese Union of Churches.

Seventh-day Adventists in Portugal welcomed a ruling from the nation’s highest court last month that offers a step toward allowing greater workplace freedom to take a particular day off for religious observance.

A decision handed down by the Constitutional Court on July 17 permitted two Adventists employed in a shift schedule the right to take off Saturdays for religious observance. Portuguese law only permits employees the right to choose their days off when working in a flexible schedule, an arrangement that few people in the Western European country have, Adventist Church leaders said.

Seventh-day Adventists observe the biblical Sabbath as sundown Friday evening to sundown Saturday evening.

Church leaders said the court’s decision doesn’t set judicial precedent for similar cases—as might happen in some other countries. But the ruling will now make it easier for Adventists to lobby lawmakers to consider the plight of Adventists, Jews, Muslims and others who keep a holy day other than Sunday, which is widely given by employers as a day off.

“This was a huge achievement because this was the first time the law was overruled by the court,” said Paulo Sérgio Macedo, Public Affairs and Religious Liberty director for the Adventist world church’s Portuguese Union of Churches.

Macedo said Adventist leaders have worked on trying to change the law since 2010. He emphasized that the Adventist Church in Portugal has good working relationships with government authorities and the Religious Liberty Commission.

Last month’s decision from the Constitutional Court stemmed from two cases.

An Adventist Church member working as a public prosecutor was denied her requests to have Saturday’s off, and she lost an appeal at the Court of Administration and a subsequent appeal at the Administrative Supreme Court.

Another Adventist Church member employed by a corporation was fired after leaving work at sundown Friday evening. She also lost earlier appeals in lower courts.

The Constitutional Court’s decision expanded the interpretation of Article 14 of the 2001 Religious Liberty Law, which stated that only people working in a flexible schedule could have Saturday as a day of rest.

“We weren’t protesting religious liberty law, which is actually one of the most progressive religious liberty laws in Europe,” Macedo said. “We were only trying to support members who had a problem with that particular part of the law. Almost no one works in a flexible schedule, and this interpretation opens new opportunities for our members.”

In 2011, officials from the Adventist Church’s Portuguese Union presented to the Portuguese Ombudsman the challenges faced by Saturday-keeping employees. In the ensuing years, the Portuguese Union received support from the denomination’s Inter-European Division and the General Conference world headquarters.

Dwayne Leslie, legislative affairs director at the General Conference, who offered consulting to the Portuguese Union during the process, said he was pleased with the court’s decision.

“We’re hoping this gives further support to people of faith in choosing how to practice their freedom of conscience,” Leslie said. “You shouldn’t have to choose between your faith and profession.”

Leslie said accommodations for Sabbath observance is one of the most common issues that Adventists face.

Macedo said last month’s court decision will likely get the attention of lawmakers beyond Portugal.

“I think this was the first time in Europe that we had [the Saturday Sabbath] recognized constitutionally this high,” he said. “This is a big step, but it’s only a step.”