April 20, 2019

U.S. Supreme Court Asks Government to Express View on Church Member’s Case

Todd McFarland, General Conference Office of General Counsel

Seventh-day Adventist church member Darrell Patterson’s religious discrimination case against Walgreens continues to gain interest and support. Patterson asked the United States Supreme court to hear his religious discrimination case. He was fired by Walgreens in 2011 because he refused to work at a call center on Saturday (Sabbath).

Since Patterson’s petition was filed last fall, several encouraging developments have occurred. First, other religious denominations and religious liberty groups filed “friend of the court” briefs in support. This wide-ranging collation included Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Sikhs. Second, Walgreens was ordered by the court to respond to Patterson’s request, something it had declined to do on its own.

More good news came in January when four of the justices filed a “statement” concerning a different religious discrimination case dealing with a football coach fired for praying after games. In declining to hear his case, Justices Alito, Thomas, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh strongly signaled interest in reexamining TWA v. Hardison.

In this 1977 case, the Supreme Court held that an employer could deny an employee’s request for religious accommodation based on any burden greater than a de minimis burden on the employer. That case set an extremely harmful legal precedent that religious employees have been fighting ever since. Patterson asked the court to revisit this decision, and the reference to Hardison by the justices was seen as interest in Patterson’s case.

In March the court reinforced its interest by asking the U.S. government to file a brief. This relatively rare request is made when the justices think the government, which has responsibility for enforcing the law, can help inform their decision. This was such a strong indication of interest by the court that it sparked an op-ed column in the Wall Street Journal on March 21, 2019, by Pepperdine law professor Michael Helfand, urging the government to support Patterson.

The government is likely to file its recommendation sometime during the summer of 2019. The justices will then decide, probably in October or November, whether to take the case. If the Supreme Court does decide to take the case, it likely will be argued in early 2020, with a decision handed down before the end of June 2020.

Of course, none of this guarantees that the court will take Patterson’s case, let alone that he will win if it does. However, for the first time in more than 40 years, an opportunity has arisen to undo the outcome in the Hardison case.

This opportunity did not come about by accident. It is the result of a faithful church member who stood up for the Sabbath in 2011 and a church that invests the resources to defend its members.

The original version of this article was posted on the North American Division news site.