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SCOTUS declines to hear religious freedom case about working on the Sabbath; conservative justices explain why they agreed


'Fired for following his faith'

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a religious discrimination case about a man who was fired after not showing up for work on the Sabbath, and some of the court's Republican-appointed members explained why they agreed with the decision.

The case in question has to do with Darrell Patterson, a former Walgreen's employee and Seventh-day Adventist who says that he was fired because of his faith because he is not permitted to work on Saturdays.

According to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty — which helped represent Patterson in court — Patterson was fired in 2011 after he missed a training session for which he was scheduled on a Saturday. The group's website explains that he tried to switch schedules with his co-workers, "but because it was last minute, he was unsuccessful." He then made the training up the following Monday but was fired anyway, the group adds.

Patterson sued for religious discrimination, but lost at the district and appeals courts levels, with judges finding that the pharmacy chain had legally done enough to accommodate his religious beliefs. Under current interpretation of federal religious discrimination law, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission explains that employers are prohibited from turning down employees' religious accommodation requests unless the request would "impose more than a de minimis [or minimal] cost or burden on business operations."

This standard is backed up by a 1977 Supreme Court ruling that also involved an employee's inability to work on Saturday's due to religious beliefs: Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote a short opinion agreeing with decision to not hear the case in which he was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch. The opinion found that employers' standards of religious accommodation supported by the Hardison ruling ought to be revisited, but Patterson's case didn't present the right opportunity to do that.

"Title VII prohibits employment discrimination against an individual 'because of such individual's . . . religion,'" the ruling states, "and the statute defines 'religion' as 'includ[ing] all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief, unless an employer demonstrates that he is unable to reasonably accommodate to an employee's or prospective employee's religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer's business.' "

It goes on to say that the 1977 ruling "does not represent the most likely interpretation of the statutory term 'undue hardship.'"

While the three justices agreed that the court "should grant review in an appropriate case to consider whether Hardison's interpretation should be overruled," they concluded that "this case does not present a good vehicle for revisiting" the precedent.

And though the court's decision may disappoint religious freedom advocates, Alito's opinion could point to better legal outcomes for religious employees in need of accommodation in the future.

"This is a disappointing outcome both for Mr. Patterson, who was fired for following his faith, but also for people of all religious traditions who seek to live out their beliefs and do an honest day's work," a statement to Blaze Media from Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said.

However, Rassbach also added that the organization is "hopeful that Justice Alito's opinion is a sign that the Supreme Court will soon take up the question of whether employees can be forced to choose between their faith and their livelihood."

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