On Monday, February 24, 2020, a nearly nine-year journey came to an end when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Patterson v. Walgreens. This case came out of Walgreens’ decision to terminate Darrell Patterson because he failed to work on a single Sabbath in 2011.
[Prior coverage of this case can be found here: “U.S. Department of Justice Urges Supreme Court to Hear Adventist's Sabbath Accommodation Case;” “U.S. Supreme Court Asks Government to Express View on Church Member's Case;” and “Adventist Pharmacy Workers' Case Likely to be Accepted by U.S. Supreme Court.”]
The case wound its way all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking the question: What does the law require employers to do in order to accommodate the religious beliefs of its employees? Patterson asked the court to reconsider its 1977 decision in TWA v. Hardison. Hardison said anything more than a minimal inconvenience or expense would be an undue hardship.
While it is disappointing that the court did not take Patterson, the fact is his case moved the cause of religious liberty in the workplace forward immeasurably. Before Patterson’s case, religious employees were not only stuck with the Hardison decision, there was no movement to get the Supreme Court to reconsider Hardison.
That has all changed. In declining to hear Patterson, three justices (Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Neil Gorsuch) said they were looking for an appropriate case to revisit Hardison. In a statement made when the case was denied, Justice Alito wrote, “I reiterate that review of the Hardison issue should be undertaken when a petition in an appropriate case comes before us.” In Supreme Court parlance, that is as clear an invitation as it gets.
In addition, the U.S. government is now on record as supporting Hardison being revisited. This is not insignificant; the Solicitor General (who represents the U.S. government) is often called the tenth justice, and that opinion matters. The position of the government is not likely to change even when the administration changes either in early 2021 or in 2025.
Put in different terms, while we were not able to get the ball over the goal line in Patterson, we moved it considerably. Before Patterson brought his case, legal challenges to Hardison were non-existent, the equivalent of being on our own 1-yard line. This single case has put the issue in the red zone. While there is no guarantee the court will overturn Hardison, it is now in striking distance.
Football analogies aside, Patterson’s case, despite it not being granted, is the most significant development in workplace religious accommodation in a generation. The Adventist Church is committed to continuing this fight — as it has for the last four decades — and to bettering the workplace for all people of faith.
— Todd McFarland is associate general counsel for the Office of General Counsel of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.