Supreme Court seems to favor religious workers in key employment case

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The U.S. Supreme Court appears ready to change employment law in favor of religious workers, charges the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

The court heard arguments today in Groff v. DeJoy, which involves a challenge by a rural postal carrier who is contending that he should have been permitted to take all Sundays off. During the lengthy arguments today, the court appeared to struggle with how to apply the law and how to provide guidance to employers.

“The Supreme Court appears ready to give preferential treatment to religious workers to the detriment of everyone else,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

The plaintiff is Gerald Groff, 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 work Groff’s shifts on Sundays, but the much smaller station he chose to then transfer to could no longer accommodate him.

Lower courts have 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 last month 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,” states the brief. “It is improper under Title VII for religious employees to claim a right to interfere with the lives and working conditions of their co-workers because they claim to have religious obligations.”

During the arguments today, the justices recognized that employment cases are necessarily context specific. Groff’s attorneys seek to make it much easier for religious employees to require their employers to provide time off for religious reasons. Groff is represented by First Liberty Institute, which is a Christian nationalist legal group.

One of the issues in the case is 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. Justice Elena Kagan strongly questioned why the court should overrule its prior precedent, especially since Congress has elected not to change the law in over four decades. She remarked, “You can count on like a finger how many times we have overruled a statutory ruling in that context.”

Justice Brett Kavanaugh indicated that whatever test is announced by the court may not easily resolve many disputes. “The hard thing is going to be how to apply it and I’m not sure we can give you a full manual of how it’s going to play out,” Kavanaugh remarked.

One underlying theme during the argument was how the court had previously overturned its prior cases on the Establishment Clause. Justice Samuel Alito and the attorney for Groff sought to use those cases to argue that the broader legal landscape had changed. Alito asked at one point: “Do you think that a change in this court’s understanding of the meaning of the religion clauses of the First Amendment is a relevant factor in determining whether the statutory interpretation in Hardison should be revisited?”

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson later countered that line of questioning by noting that Congress could still change the law applicable to employer religious accommodations if it wanted to do so, in light of new interpretations of the Establishment Clause. “Setting aside the fact that there has been a change in terms of the court, presumably Congress knows that and could change the statute now,” Jackson said.

FFRF Counsel Elizabeth Cavell says, “Although Congress has specifically declined to adopt this statutory meaning, this activist court is stepping in to privilege religious claims above all other interests.”

Groff’s proposed religious accommodation framework will lead to significantly more and contrived religious accommodation claims, FFRF’s amicus brief points out. “Employers should be able to satisfy their undue hardship obligation by demonstrating that the accommodation is likely to: increase costs, decrease revenue, disrupt the work environment, create a danger to employee health and safety, increase employee turnover and dissatisfaction, increase liability related to discrimination claims by other employees, or otherwise prove unworkable,” states the brief.

The state/church watchdog is hoping that the nation’s highest court will listen to such voices of reason.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is the largest national association of freethinkers, representing 40,000 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.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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