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Supreme Court Won't Revisit Religious Accommodation Standard - For Now

By Joseph Fawbush, Esq. on February 25, 2020 9:47 AM

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits religious discrimination in the workplace. This means employers must make reasonable accommodations for employees of faith to adhere to their beliefs unless that accommodation poses an undue hardship for the business. Under the 1977 Supreme Court case Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, anything above a minimal burden constitutes an undue hardship on an employer.

The Supreme Court had the opportunity to revisit this standard but declined to do so on February 24. Three justices explained their rationale for refusing to hear the case.

Working on the Sabbath

The case the justices declined to hear involved a former Walgreens employee, Darrell Patterson, who is a Seventh-day Adventist. Walgreens accommodated Patterson's religious observance when he was first hired. However, Patterson was later promoted several times to become one of two employee trainers in the Orlando area. Walgreens, as an accommodation, allowed Patterson to swap shifts with other employees.

When an unexpected and urgent need to train on a Saturday arose, Patterson failed to come to work, since a central tenet of his faith involves not working on Saturdays. Walgreens fired him later that week after Patterson claimed Walgreens offered to demote him with no guarantee he would have Saturdays off.

Both the district court and the 11th Circuit sided with Walgreens. The federal appellate court held in its 2018 decision that Walgreens met its obligation to accommodate Patterson by allowing him to swap any Saturday shift with another employee. The 11th Circuit did not raise the Hardison issue in its decision.

Some Conservative Justices Skeptical of Current Standard

While the Supreme Court often denies cert without explanation, the justices will occasionally clarify their reasoning. Justice Alito, joined by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch, wrote here that they agreed with the denial because the circumstances of the case were not appropriate to revisit the Title VII religious accommodation standard. However, Justice Alito expressed skepticism about Hardison's main holding.

Instead, Justice Alito agrees with the Office of the Solicitor General that "Hardison's reading does not represent the most likely interpretation of the statutory term undue hardship" in Title VII. The Trump Administration's position was that the Supreme Court should take up the case only to review the standard outlined in Hardison, which it feels favors employers too heavily.

Justice Alito appeared less confident that other issues weren't in play, but ultimately determined this was not the case to take up the religious accommodation standard.. However, he reiterated that a "review of the Hardison issue should be undertaken when a petition in an appropriate case comes before us."

Walgreens, and employers generally, are left with a win. But religious rights organizations are sure to take note of a court receptive to their arguments.

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