Ansonia Board of Education v. Philbrook


As part of a broad federal attack on discrimination in the workplace, Congress outlawed religious discrimination in employment in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In Ansonia Board of Education v. Philbrook (1986), the Supreme Court clarified an employer’s obligation to make reasonable accommodations for employees who request leave to observe their religious holidays. In light of religious diversity in the education workforce, Ansonia assists schools in establishing lawful and effective administrative practices while attempting to provide reasonable and affordable leave benefits.

Facts of the Case


Ansonia involved a high school business teacher from Connecticut who found his religious beliefs in conflict with his school board’s leave policy after he joined the Worldwide Church of God. Ronald Philbrook generally missed six school days annually to observe holy days as required by church tenets. Collective bargaining agreements between the board and teachers’ union provided three days of paid leave annually to observe mandatory religious holidays. Yet, insofar as employees were not allowed to use personal business leave for religious observances, or for any uses covered by other leave provisions, Philbrook typically took three days of unpaid or unauthorized leave each year.
Beginning with the 1976–1977 school year, he either worked during his holy days beyond three or scheduled required hospital visits on those days. The board rejected Philbrook’s request that he either be allowed to use personal business days for the uncovered religious observance days or to pay the cost of a substitute teacher but not reduce his salary for those days. Claiming religious discrimination, Philbrook brought suit under Title VII.
Title VII prohibits discrimination in employment based on religion in addition to race, color, national origin, and sex. A 1972 amendment to Title VII states that “religion” includes the religious observance and practice of an employee, unless reasonably accommodating the religious observance or practice would cause an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s organization.

The Court’s Ruling


The Supreme Court first rejected the argument that employers must accept employees’ preferred proposals unless those options cause them undue hardships. The Court observed that neither the wording nor the brief legislative history of the 1972 statutory revision supported such an interpretation. Rather, according to the Court, employers need only offer reasonable accommodations, whether an employee’s preferred option or any other, to meet their statutory obligation. Moreover, the Court noted that employers do not have to show that each of their employees’ alternative proposals would constitute undue hardship on their part, because they have already offered reasonable accommodations to the employees. As to the issue of undue hardship, in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison (1977), the Court had found that employers do not have to bear more than a de minimis cost but that this comes into play only when they reject all proposed reasonable accommodations.
Turning to the specific collective bargaining agreement and its application, the Court indicated that requiring Philbrook to take unpaid leave for religious absences exceeding the number granted in the collective bargaining agreement would have been reasonable. The Court explained that this would have been appropriate because Title VII does not require employers to accommodate religious observances at all costs. However, the Court decided that the lower courts failed to make sufficiently clear findings of how the collective bargaining agreement had been interpreted and applied, specifically whether personal business leave was in practice allowed for purposes other than observing religious days. Consequently, the Court remanded the case for a determination of whether the actual practice in administering the leave agreement constituted a reasonable accommodation.
Ansonia provides considerable guidance for school boards, because it protects the rights of educators to practice personal religious beliefs and maintain employment status. Yet, in finding that an employer meets its Title VII obligation when it offers the employee any reasonable accommodation, Ansonia also recognizes the authority of the school boards, not the employees, to determine the extent and nature of their leave policies, provided that they are reasonable and nondiscriminatory. Further, Ansonia upholds the legitimacy of otherwise valid collective bargaining agreements. Finally, by not requiring fully paid religious leave, Ansonia preserves the ability of school boards to protect their budgets from undue burdens.
Ralph Sharp

See also Civil Rights Act of 1964; Leaves of Absence; McDonnell Douglas Corporation v. Green; Teacher Rights; Title VII
Legal Citations
Ansonia Board of Education v. Philbrook, 479 U.S. 60 (1986).
Pinsker v. Joint District No. 28J of Adams and Arapahoe Counties, 735 F.2d 388 (10th Cir. 1984).
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e.
Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977).