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Sep 25, 2013

By Eric B. Meyer

Sounds like someone’s taken a page out of the Lionel Hutz playbook.

Patrice Williams is a Seventh-Day Adventist. Seventh-Day Adventists believe that the Sabbath runs from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.

Because of her sincerely held religious beliefs, Ms. Williams requested that her employer not require her to work during the Sabbath, to which the employer allowed her to do so through a combination of swapping shifts with co-workers, using vacations days, using sick days, scheduling doctors appointments, and other means.

But, that wasn’t good enough for Ms. Williams.

A failure-to-accommodate claim

So, she sued, asking that a federal court require her employer not to schedule her for work on the Sabbath, ever. She even sought two preliminary injunctions, vis-a-vis two motions creatively styled “Motion for a Temporary “Real” Sabbath Accommodation” and “Motion to Cease and Desist Denial of Regularly Scheduled Off Days and Vacation Days.”

Last week, the court, in this opinion (Williams v. U.S. Steel), denied both motions, finding it likely that Ms. Williams would lose her lawsuit altogether:

Plaintiff conceded at the evidentiary hearing and in her submissions to the Court that there is currently a shortage of crane operators qualified to operate her crane within her department. Plaintiff proposes that Defendant could solve this problem and never schedule her to work on the Sabbath by removing employees who are qualified to operate her crane from other departments.

The issue with this solution is that Plaintiff is asking Defendant to remove individuals with more seniority from their preferred positions in order to accommodate her religious practices. If a reasonable accommodation requires a deviation from an established seniority system, courts have generally considered the accommodation to constitute undue hardship.

Unlike failure-to-accommodate claims presented under the Americans with Disabilities Act, where the employer’s burden of proving undue hardship is rather high, in the context of religious accommodations, it’s low. The slightest hardship, anything more than a small cost, will suffice.

This was originally published on Eric B. Meyer’s blog, The Employer Handbook.