Supreme Court Will Hear Case That Could Increase Workers’ Religious Rights
How many concessions must companies make to accommodate the religious practices of their employees in order to comply with federal anti-discrimination laws? The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case this term that may allow the conservative majority to further expand the religious rights of workers, regardless of the hardships their observances may cause to employers and fellow workers.
Gerald E. Groff was an evangelical “rural carrier associate” with the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). In this capacity, he was required to fill in for absent carriers on an as-needed basis. When part of USPS merged with Amazon.com, Groff’s new job required him to deliver packages on Sundays. He refused because his religious beliefs forbade Sabbath work.
After being reprimanded for failing to report for work, he resigned from his job and sued the U.S. Postmaster General for violating federal anti-discrimination laws. The District Court granted summary judgment to USPS. Groff lost because lower courts believed his refusal to work on Sunday caused hardships for USPS and its employees who had to work extra weekend shifts.
Petitioner Groff appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has now granted certiorari from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. On January 13, the High Court agreed to hear his case this term. Oral argument is yet to be scheduled, but, a decision is expected in June. The Court’s ruling could determine the extent to which companies must make allowances for employees who cite religious reasons for practices that cause “undue hardship.”
Groff’s case will determine what allowances companies must make in order to comply with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Groff’s claim was for a lack of religious accommodation.
The current precedent for interpretation of what constitutes “undue hardship” is a 1977 case called Trans World Airlines v. Hardison. Groff’s lawyers have asked the Supreme Court to revisit that case because they believe current courts “virtually always side with employers whenever a (religious) accommodation would impose any burden.” His writ asks the Court to revisit Hardison because it presents a “clean vehicle” for correcting its “undisputed and consequential error.”
Groff is represented by First Liberty Institute, a conservative religious rights legal organization, as well as the Church State Council in California and the Independence Law Center in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The respondent is Postmaster General Louis DeJoy.
The case rests on several definitions and interpretations of current law. Primary among these issues is a clarification of what properly constitutes the “undue hardship standard.” Groff argues that courts are currently applying a faulty standard. His petition for cert says that “an employer suffers undue hardship whenever a religious accommodation imposes more than a de minimis cost.” Legal scholars define de minimus as pertaining to trivial matters.
Groff quotes Third Circuit Judge Thomas Hardiman’s dissent to the majority’s summary judgment decision, in which he wrote that the current undue hardship standard “sets an exceedingly low bar.”
The petitioner also argued that undue hardship should require more than showing that one employee’s religious accommodation burdened his fellow workers. He again quoted Hardiman’s dissent which said the proper standard would be to determine whether there were actual negative impacts on an employer’s business. Did employees’ workloads increase or did their morale suffer? Or is mere inconvenience enough to show undue hardship?
But rather than changing the standard, USPS argues that Groff’s issues could have easily been solved by replacing current schedules with ones that did not make him work on Sundays.
In an article about the case, the Washington Post points out that the Supreme Court declined to hear a similar case in 2020. In that case, a Walmart call center worker’s request to have Saturday off was denied. Now, the Post points out, Amy Coney Barret has replaced Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, “creating a 6-3 conservative majority even more favorable to religious claims.”