By Bob Shapiro.
The Covenant College administration in July fired three young ladies who had been employed as housekeeping staff. The firings came after the school's Building and Environmental Services Team (BEST) changed its policy and refused to allow these three college students to adjust their Sunday work schedule so that they could attend morning worship.
One of the three, Anna Grace Brown, discovered the policy change just after returning to her summer job in late-July from a non-paid leave. She was ready to continue her assignment of cleaning dorm rooms-an essential job in order to accommodate the conferences that use the mountaintop campus during the summer. A sophomore at Covenant from nearby LaFayette, Georgia, she had worked for Covenant for the past four years in its BEST department. Scheduled to work Sunday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., she had, as in years past, negotiated a flexible arrangement with Housekeeping Supervisor Carol Collier, which allowed her to get her work done while being exempted from Sunday labor.
But upon her arrival back from her mid-summer vacation with her family, Miss Brown was told by BEST management, that she and her Sunday co-workers would no longer be able to avoid Sunday labor or leave work to attend morning worship. Instead, all assigned hours must be worked. Carol Collier's supervisor, Tracy Blea, the Summer Conference Director, had decided that BEST would no longer tolerate any exceptions to the hours assigned summer BEST staff.
The change this summer apparently indicates an aggressive attitude by Covenant College in attempting to attract summer conferences (and additional revenue) to the campus. At least three times this past summer, the conference turnovers (the period when one group leaves the campus and another group arrives) were scheduled for the Lord's Day. This necessitated BEST staff to work full time on Sunday in order to clean and prepare housing for the next group.
BEST has historically recruited much of its summer staff from local Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) congregations, comprised of high school and Covenant College students. Sunday work hours have always been problematic, apparently aggravated this summer by increased conference turnovers scheduled on Sunday. According to various sources, when the parents of high school students working for BEST began to complain and prevent their children from working the Lord's Day, the college compelled the Covenant student workers to work Sunday assigned hours in order to get the facilities ready for the next conference.
When Covenant students Anna Grace Brown, a sophomore in History; Abigail, also a sophomore, and another student, a senior in Sociology, separately refused to work the hours assigned them on Sunday, they were summarily fired. Attempts to find a compromise schedule were rejected by BEST management. Even an offer from four of the terminated students' co-workers, to work their hours on Sunday until the work was completed, was rejected. Covenant College refused to answer any questions specific to the situation. stating, "Covenant College does not reply to questions that regard individuals who were formerly employed by the college, out of respect for their privacy."
Tracy Blea, a member of St. Elmo Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Chattanooga, confirmed in a phone interview that she had indeed fired Anna Grace, Abigail, and the other student, stating, "that it had nothing to do with the students' work but had to do with the decision of the supervisors to enforce the summer employment contract and the policy concerning working assigned hours." However, of the three women fired, only Anna Grace Brown had signed the summer employment contract, stating that she did so on the assumption that the college would continue to be flexible in allowing her to avoid Sunday labor and permit her to worship at St. Stephen's as they had in her three previous years working for BEST. Abigail and the other student, both members of a Chattanooga-area PCA congregation, did not sign the summer employment contract, partly because of the Sunday work requirement. In an interview with Charlie Philips, Vice President of Advancement, BEST management and the College were unaware that two of those fired did not sign the Summer Contract agreeing to work Sunday hours. The College also failed to follow normal termination procedure which requires first a verbal warning, then a written warning, and then termination. According to the women, they never received a written warning from BEST or the College.
Additionally, the policy apparently was not uniformly enforced, since no high school students were fired though a number refused to work Sundays. According to one student who worked for BEST this summer, the lack of consistency might have been due to Covenant not wanting to rile prospective students or their parents. Another instance of uneven enforcement of the policy is found in the fact that two other Covenant students who worked for BEST, sons of a Covenant professor, were exempted from Sunday hours on multiple occasions.
After the students were fired for refusing to accept their rigid Sunday schedules, BEST terminated Abby and her co-worker's summer housing, which had been provided with their summer jobs, and gave them short notice to move off campus. (Anna Grace was commuting to work from her home.) One of the women, originally from an Atlanta suburb, was forced to move in with friends in the Chattanooga area. None of the women was able to get additional full-time summer employment due to the timing of the firings, occurring only four weeks before the start of the fall semester. Moreover, Abby had earlier turned down a more lucrative job, since that position would have entailed working one Sunday per month.
One other possible effect of the firings, according to the Summer Contract, which the College requires Summer employed students to sign, is termination of the women from the Student Work Study program for the following year. As far as P&R News was able to discern, the College has not taken this course.
Tracy Blea, after firing the women, met with Anna Grace and the other student (Abby had already departed for Florida) and offered them their positions back approximately ten days after firing them, professing to be unaware of the work arrangements that had been made with their supervisor earlier in the summer. Both women refused. In an Email to the three women dated August 12, 1999, Tracy acknowledged the prior agreement with Carol Collier, the women's supervisor, regarding flexible Sunday scheduling and declared to the women, "we would keep this from happening next year as there will be no flexibility of not working on Sunday."
When asked how Covenant College's policy of requiring Sunday labor of all BEST employees can be reconciled with the college's commitment to the Fourth Commandment, Covenant College, in a press release stated, "Covenant College requires employees in housing and food service to work on Sundays as necessary, though every effort is made to minimize the number of Sundays. All summer workers sign a contract that acknowledges the possibility of Sunday work; refusal to work is sufficient grounds for dismissal."
Covenant College, located in Lookout Mountain, Georgia, is the PCA's denominational school. As such, the institution professes its allegiance to the Westminster Standards. Included in those standards is a high, Puritan view of the Sabbath. The denominational standards also mandate attendance at public worship as part of one's Christian duty. The College's pursuit of this inflexible Sunday work policy would, in effect, bar students with a high regard for the Sabbath and the standards of their Church from being employed by the College.
The women all stated that Covenant offered no severance and provided no assistance in helping them move their effects off campus or finding them other employment. When asked what they would like to see result from this summer's ordeal, Abby replied, "Covenant should revise its Conference Program so as not to schedule changeovers on Sunday, which would greatly reduce the amount of work that needs to be done on the Sabbath."
The Covenant College Choir returned in late May from its two week tour of Eastern Europe. Among the countries toured were Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic.
According to Dr. John Hamm, Professor of Music at Covenant College, the choir sang in a variety of places, including in Roman Catholic churches on two occasions, and in churches of the Hungarian Reformed Church (HRC) in the Magyar Republic (Hungary).
Professor Hamm stated that although there was perhaps some apprehension to go into a Roman Catholic church for worship, he and the choir members were "really inspired by the worship of the people there." The fact that the church would be packed on a Friday at 5:00 PM was a great "commentary on their faith," the professor said. In one Catholic church, the choir sang during the offertory, and in another the young people sang during the serving of the mass. However, none of the Covenant College Choir partook of the Eucharist.
When asked about how participation in a Roman Catholic mass squared with the Presbyterian standards, which condemn the mass, Dr. Hamm said: "We didn't feel that was a big issue. I didn't really have any students who at least voiced any significant concern."
He continued: "I think the effects of participation were very positive"; and added that "under some circumstances, we might be involved again" in a mass. "I certainly wouldn't seek out a Roman Catholic Church," he said, but "if an opportunity arose, depending on the circumstances, I might consider it again."
Dr. Hamm said that the individual who arranged for the Covenant College Choir to visit these various places was a lady at a university in Slovakia, with whom Covenant College works. The woman, who is a Roman Catholic, thinks highly of the Presbyterian school, according to Professor Hamm.