The Supreme Court unanimously ruled on June 29 that a lower court applied the wrong standard in a case about whether the U.S. Postal Service violated the constitutional rights of an evangelical Christian mail carrier when the agency refused to accommodate his wish not to work on the Sunday Sabbath.
Supporters say the decision means more employers will be required by law to respect the religious beliefs of their employees by granting them workplace accommodations.
The ruling, which comes as the Supreme Court has become increasingly protective of First Amendment-based religious freedoms in recent years, interprets for the first time in many years a 46-year-old precedent known as Trans World Airlines (TWA) v. Hardison. The 1977 decision held that to reject an employee’s request for a religious accommodation under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the employer need only demonstrate that the accommodation imposes an “undue hardship” on the business.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote the court’s opinion (pdf) in Groff v. DeJoy (court file 22-174). The respondent, Louis DeJoy, is the U.S. postmaster general.
“Based on a line in this Court’s decision” in Hardison, “many lower courts … have interpreted ‘undue hardship’ to mean any effort or cost that is ‘more than … de minimis.’ In this case, however, both parties … agree that the de minimis reading of Hardison is a mistake. With the benefit of thorough briefing and oral argument, we today clarify what Title VII requires.”
The justices spent much of the oral hearing on April 18 discussing the meaning of “de minimis,” a legal expression meaning too minor to be meaningful or taken into consideration.
“We think it is enough to say that an employer must show that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business,” Alito wrote.
“What matters more than a favored synonym for ‘undue hardship’ (which is the actual text) is that courts must apply the test in a manner that takes into account all relevant factors in the case at hand, including the particular accommodations at issue and their practical impact in light of the nature, ‘size and operating cost of [an] employer.’”
“Having clarified the Title VII undue-hardship standard, the court leaves the context-specific application of that clarified standard in this case to the lower courts,” the justice wrote.
“The Third Circuit assumed that Hardison prescribed a ‘more than a de minimis cost’ test, and this may have led the court to dismiss a number of possible accommodations, including those involving the cost of incentive pay, or the administrative costs of coordination with other nearby stations with a broader set of employees.”
The Supreme Court remanded the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit “for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”
Earlier this year and over the opposition of the Biden administration, the court agreed to take up the civil rights lawsuit of Gerald Groff, who began working as a mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) in 2012.
Groff was a rural carrier associate who filled in for absent career employees and delivered packages for Amazon, the online retailer, under an agreement Amazon has with the USPS.
Groff worked at the Quarryville, Pennsylvania post office until he transferred to the Holtwood post office in August 2016. The postal service initially tried to accommodate his request not to work on Sundays, but he quit in 2019 after the agency stopped exempting him from Sunday work. He sued, claiming the postal service discriminated against him by refusing to accommodate his religion. The suit went forward under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which was originally passed in 1964, but was amended in 1972 to require employers to provide reasonable accommodation for religious employees.
The 3rd Circuit turned down Groff’s appeal, finding that exempting him from working on Sundays, as he had asked, would have imposed an undue hardship on the postal service.
Title VII generally prohibits an employer from discriminating against an individual because of that individual’s religion. The law defines “religion” to include “all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief, unless an employer demonstrates that he is unable to reasonably accommodate to an employee’s or prospective employee’s religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.”
But in 1977, the Supreme Court narrowed the application of the religious provision. In Trans World Airlines (TWA) v. Hardison, the court held that an employer suffers an “undue hardship” in accommodating an employee’s religious exercise whenever doing so would require the employer “to bear more than a de minimis cost.”
Meanwhile, Heritage Foundation senior legal fellow Sarah Parshall Perry praised the new decision.
“The Supreme Court reminded employers that religious employees must not be forced to choose between their employment and their convictions,” she said in a statement.
“After the Trans World Airlines v. Hardison decision, courts for too long ruled that an employer was under no obligation to accommodate a religious employee’s on-the-job requests if the impact on the operations of that employer was even trivial—a standard unsupported by the text of Title VII itself.”
Groff himself praised the new court decision in a statement provided by First Liberty Institute, which backed the lawsuit.
“I am grateful to have had my case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court and that they have decided to uphold religious liberty. I hope this decision allows others to be able to maintain their convictions without living in fear of losing their jobs because of what they believe.”
Aaron Streett of Baker Botts in Houston, Texas, who represented Groff at the Supreme Court, also hailed the new ruling.
“We are thrilled the Court today recognized that an America that values religious pluralism should respect the religious liberty rights of every employee. Our nation has a long history of protecting its employees from being treated differently at work just because of their faith. This decision is consistent with that history and is a tremendous win for all people of faith.”
Americans United for Separation of Church and State president and CEO Rachel Laser was relieved the court didn’t go farther in its ruling. She also denied Groff’s victory.
“We’re facing an aggressive movement working to weaponize religious freedom, but religious freedom must never be a license to harm others, and that remains true in the workplace. Today, in a unanimous opinion, the court ‘clarified’ the standard for granting religious accommodations without overturning precedent,” Laser said in a statement.
“Religious accommodations that don’t burden or harm others, like wearing a hijab or having a beard, or praying privately, are exactly what the law was designed to permit. In this case, however, Groff was hired as a part-time, flexible carrier at a 4-person post office, and he refused to show up for 24 Sundays of work. He refused to work the same flexible schedule for which he was hired,” she said.
“Importantly, Groff has not won this case. We live to fight another day.”
The Epoch Times reached out to the U.S. Department of Justice, which represents DeJoy, but had not received a reply as of press time.
From The Epoch Times