479 U. S. 60
November 17, 1986
Ronald Philbrook was a schoolteacher who belonged to Herbert Armstrong’s cultish Worldwide Church of God. The Church required members to refrain from work on six days during the school year. Philbrook’s school district allowed 3 days of paid leave for religious holidays, and 3 additional days of paid leave for personal business, but the personal business days could not be used for religious purposes. Thus, Philbrook had to take unpaid leave for 3 days out of the school year. He objected to this state of affairs under a 1972 law that required employers to make reasonable accommodations for religious employees unless it would impose undue hardship on the employer. A Court of Appeals held that the case needed to be remanded back to the District Court for further factual finding, and that the employer had to accept the employee’s proposed accommodation unless it imposed undue hardship.
By an 8-1 vote the Supreme Court upheld the remand, and in a separate 8-1 vote it overturned the legal standard put forth by the Court of Appeals. Rehnquist wrote for the majority. Upon the plain terms of the statute, he said, the religious accommodation only needs to be reasonable – and it does not need to be one preferred by the employee, or one that best resolves the conflict. He also concluded that the facts in the record were not sufficient to show whether or not Philbrook had been offered a reasonable accommodation.
Justice Marshall dissented on the issue of the legal standard. He agreed with the Court of Appeals, and believed that employers should be required to find an accommodation which completely resolves the religious conflict, rather than being able to satisfy the statute merely be putting forth a ‘reasonable’ accommodation. Marshall contended that the Court did not give enough weight to EEOC guidelines which suggested as much, and also emphasized that being forced to take leave without pay is indeed very real and serious discrimination. Once again, I find myself impressed by Marshall’s arguments and their persuasive force. Maybe I’ve misjudged the guy. Certainly you’d never see any liberal arguing so forcefully for religious freedom today.
Justice Stevens dissented on the issue of the remand. He said that, given only facts already in the record, one can authoritatively conclude that Philbrook has not been discriminated against, and requires no religious accommodation. Essentially, Stevens argued that because Philbrook was not fired, and faced no discipline, there was no conflict between his job and his religion. This opinion is typical of Stevens; in addition to being an arrogant douchebag, he had a clear and spiteful bias against religion which he didn’t even bother to hide when judging cases.
Demonstrating his lack of touch with reality, Stevens even ominously intimates at one point that Philbrook’s “argument rests on the premise that Philbrook’s special, that is, religious, needs entitle him to extraordinary treatment. His “discrimination” argument states a grievance against equal treatment, rather than a claim that he has been the recipient of unequal treatment.” No sh!t, Sherlock! Extraordinary and unequal treatment in order to accommodate religious beliefs is the whole f*cking point of the law. Of course, as we’ll gradually see, Stevens was never one to let a pesky thing like the intent of Congress override his own personal bigotries.