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By ALBERT SABATE
c. 2011 Religion News Service
LOMA LINDA, Calif. (RNS) Postal carrier Ruth Gomez had prayed and waited for five years to be transferred to the Loma Linda Post Office so that she could finally put to rest the conflicts between her faith and her job.
As a Seventh-day Adventist, Gomez observes the Sabbath on Saturday and Loma Linda, with its strong Adventist heritage, had swapped Saturday mail delivery for Sunday for 81 years.
Just as Gomez arrived, however, the U.S. Postal Service announced it would end the special arrangement and align Loma Linda with the rest of the country. On the day before Easter, for the first time since the Great Depression, Loma Linda’s fleet of boxy, white mail trucks zipped around this 23,000-person city in San Bernardino County on a Saturday.
The decision surprised and angered many residents and hurled Gomez back into a difficult dilemma of balancing her duties to God and Caesar.
“I was so distraught. I couldn’t believe this. I had been waiting so many years,” said Gomez, her voice quivering with emotion. “I went outside and started crying in the parking lot.”
Most people in this Southern California town, both Adventist and not, either don’t care or else welcome the switch. Only a handful of local Adventists have organized opposition, an indication that Loma Linda and local Adventists have shifted over time.
Opponents of Saturday weekend delivery say they have a religious duty to refuse nonessential work on the Sabbath — even from people who, in most places, would be seen as providing a service.
“It’s a religious liberty issue. We do not need to have workers working on Saturday,” said resident Sylvia Sheppard, who sees the change as government meddling with local tradition and religious practice. “Why should the state sanction people being off on Sunday any more than Saturday?”
But most Adventists see Sabbath-keeping as a strictly personal matter.
“I personally do not believe that it impacts my personal faith and the way I practice my Seventh-day Adventist beliefs,” said Loma Linda Councilman Ron Dailey, pointing out that the Postal Service is facing billions of dollars in shortfall.
The Saturday change will save the local office operating costs, according to the Postal Service, which declined to provide exact figures. Instead, officials have emphasized how the switch will improve mail delivery.
“It’s a service issue,” said Dan Mesa, the Loma Linda postmaster. “We were trying to streamline service to customers, and that is one way we can improve service.”
On a recent Friday, Sheppard drove to the local churches to drop off boxes to collect signatures for a petition. So far, the retired speech therapist has gathered more than 600 signatures that she has sent to Congress.
Sheppard and others are hoping to get government officials involved, but Mayor Rhodes “Dusty” Rigsby said that would violate the principle of separating church and state.
“Local government shouldn’t tip the scales in favor of one religion over another,” said Rigsby, himself a Seventh-day Adventist.
Adventist roots once ran deep in Loma Linda, where church founder Ellen White had a vision to establish a church-run sanitarium in the area. That grew into church-affiliated Loma Linda University and the LLU Medical Center, now the area’s largest employer.
Adventism still blankets Loma Linda’s identity even as the proportion of Adventists has declined. Non-Adventists who move in, lured by the area’s high standard of living, slowly chipped away at the city’s Adventist character.
Even among Adventists, interpretation of Sabbath-keeping differs based on class and ethnicity. Shephard has received the greatest support for her petition from ethnic Hispanic and Romanian churches, while the 6,500-member mostly Anglo Loma Linda University Church of Seventh-day Adventists has refused to collect signatures, not wanting to get involved with political issues.
Four of the 18 mail carriers in Loma Linda — all ethnic minorities — keep the Sabbath. Mesa, the postmaster, said workers who prefer not to work on Saturdays could request leave without pay or vacation, but he did not commit to making accommodations.
“Employees are all treated the same,” he said. “We still have an operation — a business to run — so we still have to have enough employees to deliver the mail.”
Gomez and others are now filing a lawsuit against the Postal Service on the grounds of religious discrimination.
“Their jobs are on the line if they don’t violate their faith,” said Alan Reinach, executive director of the Adventists’ local Church State Council, and an attorney for the carriers. “The decision (to switch) was wrong-headed, and I’d like them to reconsider it.
In April, a federal appeals court ruled that an Adventist mailman in Missouri was not the victim of religious discrimination when he was fired in 2008 for refusing to work on Saturdays.
Reinach said the Postal Service has been asking Congress to eliminate weekend delivery altogether in a bid to save money.
“The Post Office itself has been pushing for several years to eliminate Saturday service, and whatever benefit they reap in Loma Linda is extremely short-term,” Reinach said. “Saturday delivery has to be on its way out.”