Looking Back: On the Sabbath…
In 1978, the debate on religious freedom was brought close to home. Oakland University Public Safety Sergeant John Simmons was suspended after he refused to work on a Saturday.
Simmons was a Seventh Day Adventist, and his religion prohibited him from working on his Sabbath, which is usually observed on Saturday. On Aug. 4, he was suspended indefinitely for refusing to work from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
“It is a 24 hour, seven-day-a-week job,” said one unnamed sergeant. “Not what his religious preferences allows him to work.”
Oakland’s police officers had three different shifts: days, midnights and afternoons. One sergeant worked a swing shift, too. With Simmons’ refusal to work, it affected four different shifts of OUPD workers. People began to speak out against it.
“I can never have a Friday or Saturday off,” said another unnamed sergeant.
Simmons, however, didn’t agree with this. He told The Oakland Sail, the student newspaper at the time, that it wasn’t uncommon for two supervisors to have the same day off when the former Director of Public Safety Earl Gray was in charge.Apparently, OU News, a publication handed out on campus run by the Office of Public Relations, felt as if some publications at OU were incorrectly reporting that Simmons’ employment was terminated.
The Oakland Sail article does not state he was terminated, so it is unclear which publication OU News was referring to or not. There would have been no other student-run publication at that time.
However, in the OU News article, it was stated that Simmons was suspended due to “work schedule” issues and nothing more. According to the paragraph-long description, the issue was “being handled through normal problem-solving procedures for sergeants.”
Some of the unnamed sergeants in The Oakland Sail’s article claimed that the reason Simmons began a different schedule was because he was attending OU in efforts to get a nursing degree and would eventually leave the force. The sources remained unnamed so their jobs were not put in jepordy.
When Simmons dropped the nursing program, some of them said “we realized that for the rest of our lifetimes we’d not have a Friday or Saturday off… it’s an unfair labor practice.”
Simmons disagreed with the other seargents, saying he never intended on leaving the force.
“I was in pre-nursing,” he said. “I have at least two or three years to go.”
Simmons said his record was perfect on the force, but he did note he was the only black supervisor on the force.
“We admire and respect his commitment to his religion,” one sergeant said. “But it doesn’t belong in this type of job.”
Despite OU News saying he was not fired, they did post a job listing in the same newsletter for a public safety office, which gave people the impression that Simmons was being let go.
Students weren’t very happy about his suspension.
There was a petition with over 700 signatures passed on to President of the university at the time, Donald O’Dowd during a meeting with the Vice President of Student Affairs and the Director of Employment Relations.
Sophomore Veronica Nichols, one of the students who started the petition, was at the meeting where O’Dowd was given the petition.
“O’Dowd commended us for doing the petitions and said he hopes they have a positive effect,” she said.
The student petition pointed out how there were no problems working with his schedule under Earl Gray.
Students pointed out that the “unrest” at Simmons observing his Sabbath occurred when Dick Leonard was appointed to Director of Public Safety.
This petition, however, said it was easy to speculate that Leonard may be partly responsible for these “sudden changes” in behavior.
Dick Leonard remained at Oakland University as Director of Public Safety. His son, Rick Leonard, is a sergeant in the Auburn Hills police force today.
There were four steps of appeals, and the one that he didn’t pass through in Oct. 1978 was the third step. However, once it made it through the fourth step, the university found he should be reinstated to active duty with full back pay.
There was no proof that the university suffered in any way as a result of accommodating his schedule. Prior to his suspension, his request was honored.
He ended up deciding to leave the force by December of the same year despite his reinstatement.