Court Will Hear Teacher’s Suit Testing Religious-Leave Policy

By Tom Mirga — January 29, 1991 4 min read

The U.S. Supreme Court has added to its docket yet another case involving religion in public schools, agreeing to rule on the rights of teachers under civil-rights laws to receive paid leave for religious purposes.

The Court’s decision last week to hear Ansonia Board of Education v. Philbrook (Case No. 85-495) brings to three the number of such cases that the Court has agreed to review in its current term. It also follows decisions by the Court last spring that struck down Alabama’s moment-of-silence law and invalidated the method used by most urban school districts to distribute federal compensatory-education aid to students in church-affiliated schools.

Six Holy Days

According to papers filed with the Justices, the Philbrook case centers on a provision in a contract between the Ansonia, Conn., school board and the Ansonia Federation of Teachers that grants teachers a maximum of three days paid leave for religious observances. Teachers are also entitled to an additional three days of paid leave for “personal business,” but the contract stipulates that these cannot be used for any religious activity.

In 1968, Ronald Philbrook, a typing and business teacher at Ansonia High School, joined the Worldwide Church of God, whose members are required to refrain from work on six holy days a year as a condition for receiving eternal life. Since 1970, the school board has deducted a day’s pay from Mr. Philbrook’s salary for each of the three days he has taken off in excess of the three he is entitled to under the contract.

Mr. Philbrook filed complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the state human-rights commission charging that the contract provision discriminated against him on the basis of his religion.

After investigating the matter, the agencies attempted to negotiate a settlement, but the board rejected Mr. Philbrook’s requests that he be allowed either to use his three personal days to observe the holy days or to pay for a substitute teacher.

Suit Filed

The teacher then filed suit in federal district court, claiming violations of his religious rights under the First Amendment and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The district court dismissed his suit, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed that decision last March.

Basing its decision solely on Mr. Philbrook’s Title VII claim, the appeals court held that the teacher had proven a prima facie case of religious discrimination. It also held that in such cases, the civil-rights law requires employers to accept an employee’s proposed settlement when both the employer’s and employee’s proposals are reasonable.

In its petition seeking review of the case, the Ansonia board argues that the appeals court’s determination that Mr. Philbrook had established a case of discrimination conflicts with rulings of other appeals courts in virtually identical cases.

“What Philbrook seeks is not accommodation of his religious practices, but a subsidy of those practices,” the board says in its petition. “Philbrook contends that because the school board has allotted to employees what is arguably a generous portion of paid leave, it can afford to be more generous and underwrite all of his absences arising for religious reasons. It is submitted that Title VII does not compel this result any more than it would require an employer who provides no form of paid leave to compensate employees for absences taken to observe religious holidays.”

Other Action

The Court also took action last week in the following cases:

  • The Justices declined to review Gillespre v. Wisconsin (No. 85-919), which involves a challenge of an employment test used by the Wisconsin Department of Health and Human Services.

The suit, a class action filed on behalf of 40 blacks who applied for positions as personnel specialists and managers with the department, contends that the exam should be struck down under Title VII because it has a substantial negative impact on minorities. About 23 percent of the minority-group members pass the exam compared with 43 percent of the whites.

A federal district judge held that although the test did not meet the highest standards, as judged by expert witnesses, the state had satisfactorily proven that a passing grade was related to future success on the job. Furthermore, the judge held that the blacks who filed suit had failed to show that a reasonable alternative selection device existed.

A federal appeals court affirmed the lower court’s ruling last August.

The use of tests as screening devices has become an increasingly controversial topic as states have moved to raise standards for entry into the teaching profession.

Last August, a federal district judge barred the state of Texas from using a test to screen applicants for admission into the state’s teacher-preparation programs. The judge held that the test ran afoul of both Title VII and the 14th Amendment because it was motivated by a discriminatory intent and because the disproportionate rate at which minorities failed it was a vestige of past segregation in the state’s elementary and secondary schools.

The decision in that case, U.S. v. Texas, has been appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

  • The Justices also declined to review Metropolitan County Board of Education v. Kelly (No. 85-870), which involves a dispute over legal fees in Nashville’s school-desegregation lawsuit.
  • Officials in the Davison County school district had challenged a federal appeals court’s ruling last September that the chief lawyer for the black plaintiffs in the case was entitled to his normal fee of $120 per hour, and his assistant to his normal fee of $65 per hour, plus an additional 25 percent of the total for all the work done on the case since 1972. The appeals court also ordered the case back to the district court for a determination of fees for work done by the plaintiffs’ lawyers from 1955, when the case was filed, to 1972.

    A version of this article appeared in the January 29, 1986 edition of Education Week