To what extent may an employee’s religious practices be legally protected in the workplace? When former Walgreens employee Darrell Patterson refused to violate his Saturday Sabbath observance for a mandatory training, Walgreens fired him. Patterson sued in federal court, lost at the trial and appellate levels, and is now seeking relief from the United States Supreme Court. Within the employment discrimination context, this religious liberty case raises critical legal issues for employers about (a) how much “reasonable accommodation” is required for employees’ religious practices and (b) what amounts an “undue hardship” for employers, in both concrete and theoretical terms.
Patterson’s Journey from Employee to Litigant
Darrell Patterson is a professing Seventh Day Adventist. The tenets of his faith require that he “remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it Holy,” by avoiding work from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. In 2005, Patterson began working for Walgreens at its seven-day-a-week call center.
From the outset, Patterson made it clear that he would be unavailable for shifts during the Sabbath. In response, Walgreens accommodated his religious request for several years. For example, his Walgreens supervisor agreed to schedule regular training classes between Sunday and Thursday, to work around Patterson’s Sabbath observance and in his position as a trainer. In addition, Walgreens allowed him to find substitutes for any training work sessions scheduled during his Sabbath observance.
In 2011, Walgreens management determined that an emergency training session was needed on a Saturday, due to pharmacy-related regulatory issues at another location that was being shut down. Patterson received this training assignment, even though it was during his Sabbath observance. Walgreens management then instructed him to find another trainer to handle the assignment in his absence. Patterson subsequently made some attempt to find a substitute trainer but was unsuccessful.
Rather than assist Patterson with such effort, Walgreens management advised him to look for another Walgreens position for which his Sabbath observance would not be an issue and could be more easily accommodated. Management further informed him that it could not guarantee honoring his religious observance, as part of his future employment with Walgreens. Patterson refused both to report for work in violation of his religious beliefs and to look for another internal position. Walgreens then terminated his employment, and Patterson sued.
The Legal Framework for Patterson’s Religious Discrimination Claim
Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on their religion, as a protected classification. With respect to religious practices, such legal protection means that employers must provide “reasonable accommodation” for employees to observe them. A limit exists: if a religious practice would impose an “undue hardship” on the employer, then it is unreasonable and not legally required. But where is the dividing line?
Consider an employer that requires its employees to work regularly from Monday through Friday, with occasional weekend overtime to complete projects. A “reasonable accommodation” for an employee who observes a Sunday Sabbath would be to allow such person to work on Saturday instead of Sunday (and vice versa for an employee who observes a Saturday Sabbath). Now consider an employer who provides urgent-care health services to customers 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and with a very limited staff to carry out such work. The type of employee accommodation could be legally deemed an “undue hardship,” since it would presumably be critical for all employees to be available throughout the week as needed.
These brief examples demonstrate the highly fact-specific nature of many employment-related religious discrimination issues that can arise in relation to employees’ religious practices. In the first work example, it makes sense for the employer to allow more scheduling flexibility for its employees. Not so for the second work example; indeed, the employer’s small business could be significantly harmed without flexible employee availability.
What About Patterson’s Religious Claim?
Through his lawsuit, Patterson claimed that Walgreens unlawfully discriminated against him by terminating his employment due to his religious practices. In response, Walgreens contended that it had accommodated his religious requests as much as reasonably necessary, as a legal matter, and that an undue hardship would result for Walgreens to guarantee no Sabbath work in the future. The trial court agreed with Walgreens’ argument, as did the court of appeals.
Could Walgreens have better accommodated Patterson’s religious practice request for no Sabbath work, such as by helping him to find substitute staff workers or rescheduling training sessions? More specifically, was Walgreens legally required to do so, as a matter of religious discrimination protections available to Patterson? And does the fact that future conflicts could arise from Patterson’s religious practice justify Walgreen’s termination of his employment? These questions may be resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court. For now, Walgreens has until January 14, 2019, to respond to Patterson’s petition for “writ of certiorari,” on whether the Court should accept the case.
Practical Applications for Employers
Religious beliefs and practices are important and should be respected. What should employers do when employees raise religious objections to scheduling needs or other work conditions?
- Be sensitive and attentive to employee needs. We live in a pluralistic, multi-cultural society. People follow varied religious practices, which may give rise to employment-related issues.
- Be clear about work expectations and related requirements. If employees are required to be available on a varied schedule, on weekends, or based on other business constraints, then make such requirements plain.
- Seek to accommodate employees’ scheduling needs or other requests, whether arising from their religious beliefs or not. That’s just good business. Would the Patterson case have turned out differently if Walgreens had helped him find a substitute trainer? If Walgreens had taken other measures to help honor his religious practices? Perhaps so.
- Fourth, demonstrate clearly how some requests may amount to a legally defensible undue hardship for the employer.
Documenting all of these matters – job requirements, the employer’s good faith efforts to accommodate requests, and any consequent undue hardships justifying the employer’s refusal (or inability) to accommodate certain requests – may be vital to protecting the employer from potential adverse employee claims. Consulting with legal counsel also may be pivotal for avoiding legal pitfalls and better preparing for such claims.
Bottom line: Use these proactive employment safeguards both prospectively and when employees raise religious-based objections to work requirements. And stay tuned for whether the Supreme Court takes up this important religious accommodation case or not.
 Patterson v. Walgreens, Docket No. 16-16923 (11th Cir. Mar. 9, 2018), pet. for cert. filed (No. 18-349, Sept. 14, 2018).