The Supreme Court ruled in Ansonia Board of Education v. Philbrook, 479 U.S. 60 (1986), that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not require an employer to accept an employee’s proposal concerning religious observance when the employer and the employee both proposed reasonable accommodation of the employee’s religious needs.

Title VII requires employers to reasonably accommodate “an employee’s or a prospective employee’s religious observance” if it can do so “without undue hardship.”

Missing work for holy days

Ronald Philbrook, a schoolteacher and member of the Worldwide Church of God, missed approximately six schooldays a year to observe holy days. He was permitted to use only three of the six days as annual leave for this purpose and wanted either to be able to use more leave or to hire a substitute for the extra days he had to miss.

In the Court’s opinion, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist argued that the Court had ruled previously in Trans World Airlines v. Hardison (1977) that accommodations posed “undue hardship” on employers when they resulted in “more than a de minimis cost” to the employer. If a school’s accommodation is reasonable, “the statutory inquiry is at an end.” In this case, Rehnquist did not believe the record sufficiently established whether the policy constituted a reasonable accommodation of Philbrook’s religious beliefs and accordingly argued that it should be remanded to the lower court for such a determination.

In a partial concurrence and a partial dissent, Justice William J. Brennan noted that an employee who had to forfeit three days of pay was presented with “a conflict between his religious needs and work requirements.” He thought the school board was obligated at the very least to consider Philbrook’s proposal. In a separate partial concurrence and partial dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens said there was no need to remand the case to the lower court because the evidence clearly demonstrated that Philbrook could not prevail on his claim. Philbrook received no more or less days because of his religion than anyone else, and that is all the law required.

The case illustrates the fine line that the Court sometimes has to draw between claims based on religious accommodation and discrimination.

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