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Sabbath Accommodation Case Takes One Step Closer to the U.S. Supreme Court

The U.S. government’s top Supreme Court lawyer has recommended the Court hear a case with potentially far-reaching implications for Sabbath-keepers in the workplace.

Noel Francisco, the U.S. Solicitor General, filed the brief December 9, 2019, in a case brought by Seventh-day Adventist church member Darrell Patterson against the national pharmacy chain Walgreens. Francisco, whose brief came in response to a request from the Supreme Court for his advice, suggested that Patterson’s case did indeed pose an important religious free-exercise question for the Court to consider.

In the five years since this lawsuit began, Patterson has been represented by Todd McFarland, Associate General Counsel at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. The suit was filed after Patterson was fired by Walgreens for failing to conduct a two-hour training session on a Saturday (Sabbath). A central legal question in the case is how far an employer must go in order to accommodate the religious practices of its employees. The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled against Patterson, holding that if a religious practice poses anything more than a “de minimus”— or nominal — burden on the employer, accommodation is not required by law.

According to McFarland, it is true that secular businesses do not have to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs under all circumstances. But, he said, when it comes to religious practice in the workplace, Congress has attempted to strike a balance between the needs of businesses and the needs of employees by saying the employer must accommodate unless it causes an “undue hardship.” It is the interpretation of these two words — “undue hardship” — that lies at the heart of Patterson’s case.

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