In an unanimous opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito today, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a narrow ruling “clarifying” the standard for evaluating religious accommodations in the workplace while refusing to overrule longstanding precedent.
In Groff v. DeJoy, which involved a challenge by a rural postal carrier who was asserting that he should have been permitted to take all Sundays off, the court ruled that the plain language of Title VII requiring employers to accommodate an employee’s religious practice absent “undue hardship on the conduct of business,” means that a substantial burden in the overall context of the employer’s business is required to deny an employee’s request. Previously, lower courts understood the standard under the law to be anything more than de minimus.
Contrary to the religious right spin, today’s opinion did not give Gerald Groff and his conservative Christian backers what they asked for and wanted. Groff asked the court to overrule Hardison v. TWA and change the legal test to drastically favor religious employees. He also asked the court to rule that burdens on employees are never sufficient to establish undue hardship on the conduct of a business. The unanimous court did not do any of those things.
“The court was wise not to overrule Hardison or to adopt Groff’s chosen definition of ‘undue hardship’ because the court should rarely overrule statutory interpretation cases,” stated Justice Sonia Sotomayor in her concurrence (joined by Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson). “It is especially inappropriate here where Congress has had decades to amend this part of Title VII but has not done so.”
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor says, “FFRF is thankful that the court took a more restrained approach and did not overturn precedent.”
The plaintiff in the case was a former postal worker who accepted a position to work on an as-needed basis, necessarily tending to involve weekends, but who requested not to work on Sundays because it was his Sabbath. The U.S. Postal Service initially accommodated Groff’s request by scheduling co-workers to take Groff’s shifts on Sundays, but the much smaller station he chose to then transfer to could no longer accommodate him. Groff was represented by First Liberty Institute, which is a Christian nationalist legal group.
Lower courts ruled in favor of the Postal Service because Groff’s chosen accommodation placed an undue hardship on it. FFRF filed an amicus brief before the Supreme Court asking it to affirm the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ judgment. “Religious employees do not have the legal right to dictate that an employer must impose disruptive conditions on co-workers,” stated the brief.
One of the issues in the case was whether the Supreme Court should overturn the 1977 TWA v. Hardison case. There, the court held that an airline did not have to diverge from its seniority system in order to accommodate an employee who observed the Sabbath. In the Groff ruling, the court let the Hardison judgment stand.
The court sent Groff’s case back to the lower court: “Without foreclosing the possibility that USPS will prevail, we think it appropriate to leave it to the lower courts to apply our clarified context-specific standard.”
“Today’s ruling brings a sigh of relief for the moment,” says FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert, “but as with everything in our new legal landscape, we expect to see further litigation from religious right organizations who want to increase their religious privilege by broadening accommodations and exemptions.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is the largest national association of freethinkers, representing 41,000 atheists, agnostics, and others who form their opinions about religion based on reason, rather than faith, tradition or authority. FFRF’s interest in this case arises from its position that expansive religious exemptions from workplace rules will harm the nonreligious as well as many other Americans, by setting up a two-tiered system that rewards some workers and penalizes others.