Hardison empowered corporations to deny their employees religious accommodations whenever finding workable a solution might impose even a “de minimis” (minimal) burden on the company. Following Hardison, district and appellate courts across this country repeatedly ruled in favor of Fortune 500 companies and other large employers at the expense of religious minorities. Below are a few examples of how Hardison was used to exclude religious minorities from well-paying jobs nationwide.
Small v. Memphis Light, Gas & Water
As a congregational leader of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jason Small’s faith requires that he attend church services on Wednesday evenings, meet with the community on Saturdays, and participate in special ceremonies a few times a year. For more than a decade, Small managed to balance these religious obligations with his full-time job as an electrician at Memphis Light, Gas, and Water (MLGW)—one of the largest municipal utility providers in the United States. But problems arose in 2015 when Small asked to use his personal vacation time to observe Good Friday, a holy day for Small. His company first approved, but then suddenly denied, his request. Small chose to attend his church service anyway and was suspended for missing work. Ultimately, he brought a Title VII claim against MLGW.
Hardison caused Small to lose his case. The federal courts reasoned that every accommodation proposed by Small—from a reduced salary to reassignment or use of vacation time—would constitute “more than a de minimis cost” for his employer and, therefore, was not required by federal law. Small asked the Supreme Court to intervene but, on April 5, 2021, the Court decided not to review his case. Justice Gorsuch, however, would have granted the petition to revisit Hardison. “There is no barrier to our review and no one else to blame,” he wrote, “[t]he only mistake here is of the Court’s own making—and it is past time for the Court to correct it.” The mistake Justice Gorsuch was referring to? The Supreme Court’s decision in Hardison.
Weber v. Roadway Express
Lynn Weber, a Jehovah’s Witness, worked as a truck driver at Roadway Express, Inc., one of the largest trucking companies in the United States. Weber’s religion required him to refrain from making long-haul overnight trips with a female partner who was not his wife. So, when Weber was paired with a female partner, he asked for a religious accommodation. Even though Roadway Express normally allowed such accommodations for drivers who simply did not want to ride together, or for other personal or emergency reasons, it refused to accommodate Weber’s request simply because it was religious. Without explanation, Weber’s supervisor said that working with women was part of Weber’s job and that he could either comply or stop driving for the company.
Again, the federal courts applied Hardison and sided with Roadway Express. The federal appeals court held that even the “mere possibility of an adverse impact” of Weber’s accommodation was “sufficient to constitute an undue hardship” under Hardison, meaning the company did not have to accommodate Weber’s religious beliefs at all.
Sanchez-Rodriguez v. AT&T Mobility Puerto Rico, Inc.
Miguel Sánchez-Rodríguez worked as a retail consultant at AT&T, one of the world’s largest telecommunication companies and the largest provider of mobile telephone services in the United States. As a Seventh-day Adventist, Sánchez could not work on Saturday, his Sabbath. Accordingly, he requested a religious accommodation to take his Sabbath off. AT&T, however, refused the request, claiming his religious accommodation would somehow impose an undue hardship on the operations of a multibillion-dollar company. Instead of accommodating Sánchez, AT&T only offered him a different—and significantly lowering-paying—role at AT&T.
Sánchez sued AT&T for religious discrimination under Title VII, explaining that the company could have accommodated his religious beliefs without any significant burden on its operations. The district court, however, sided with AT&T, and the court of appeals agreed. The courts concluded that the offer of a completely different, lower-paying role was sufficient to satisfy Title VII, even though accepting a demotion is not required when employers are caught discriminating on the basis of race or disability. Even so, because of Hardison, the federal courts concluded that anything more would impose an undue hardship on AT&T.