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The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously strengthened religious liberty in the workplace Thursday, ruling in favor of a Christian postal worker who lost his job for refusing to work on Sundays.
The Court’s unanimous opinion in Groff v. DeJoy, authored by Justice Samuel Alito, overruled the decision of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that the United States Postal Service (USPS) did not violate the religious accommodation rights of postal worker Gerald Groff under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
“This decision will give those religious minorities a fair shot in court and, one would hope, encourage more employers to adopt more inclusive workplace policies so that religious employees won’t have to choose between their livelihood and their faith,” Joshua McDaniel, director of Harvard Law School’s Religious Liberty Clinic, said.
After clarifying Title VII’s requirements, the Court gave the case back to the Third Circuit to retry the case because of its factual complexity. This means that either Groff or the USPS could eventually prevail, but the USPS — and all employers — must meet a much higher standard to deny a religious accommodation.
Groff, an Evangelical Christian and longtime employee of the USPS, never worked Sundays in line with his religious beliefs and his initial job description. But when the USPS started to deliver packages on Sundays because of a deal with Amazon, the postal service would require him to work on his Sabbath. To avoid conflict, he transferred to a different location.
His new location started delivering on Sundays, and he claimed that USPS “progressive[ly] discipline[d]” him because he refused to work Sundays. He then resigned and sued the USPS for religious discrimination. The Third Circuit rejected his claim.
The controversy in this case surrounded a 50-year-old standard from Trans World Airlines v. Hardison. In that case, the Court held that an employer could deny an accommodation if it causes a “more than de minimis cost” — a legal term meaning that anything more than a “very small” cost would be enough for an employer to legally deny any religious accommodation.
The Court held that Title VII’s “undue hardship” language requires employers to show that the accommodation would impose a burden that “is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business.” Justice Alito stated that a business proving the accommodation would cause a small cost is not enough “to establish ‘undue hardship’ under Title VII.” This means that an employer now needs to show a substantial hardship would be caused by the religious accommodation in order to deny it.
“[Costs imposed on a business due to a religious accommodation] would have to rise to the level of hardship, and adding … ‘undue’ means that the … burden … or adversity must rise to an ‘excessive’ or ‘unjustifiable’ level,” Alito wrote. “When ‘undue hardship’ is understood in this way, it means something very different from … something that is ‘very small or trifling.’”
As Justice Alito notes, the low standard from a previous case has been used by lower courts to deny many religious people even the most minor accommodations for firmly-held religious beliefs. According to Becket Law, a religious liberty law firm, 86% of religious accommodation claims under the now-struck-down de minimis test have been denied.
For instance, Muslim women have been discriminated against for wearing a hijab, Apostolic Pentecostal women have been denied the ability to wear skirts instead of pants, and Sikh men have been denied the ability to wear turbans and grow out beards.
The decision was supported in briefs by many religious groups, including Orthodox Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians. The decision will likely give religious employees more protection for religious accommodations in the workplace going forward.