In a hugely important lawsuit concerning the rights of religious American workers’ vis-a-vis their employers, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case of a former U.S. postal worker, Gerald Groff, whose request for Sundays off to observe the Sabbath was denied by the United States Postal Service (USPS).
In 2012, Groff, a Christian, began looking for a job that would allow him to honor the Sabbath on Sundays. Knowing the post office was closed on Sundays, he applied and was hired as a postal carrier in Pennsylvania. In 2013, the USPS signed a contract with Amazon to deliver packages on Sundays, and began scheduling postal workers, including Groff, to work on Sundays.
At first, the postmaster exempted Groff from Sunday work shifts so long as he covered other shifts throughout the week. In 2015, however, he was told he would be required to work on Sundays when he was scheduled. Or else, he’d have to find another job. Groff transferred to another city’s post office which had not implemented Amazon Sunday deliveries, which lasted until 2017, when such deliveries began.
Groff asked to be accommodated so that he could observe the Sunday Sabbath, and his supervisors worked around his schedule for a period of time if other workers were willing to cover for him on Sundays. When others couldn’t cover his shift, he was disciplined for failing to report for his scheduled shifts.
Ultimately, Groff faced termination for his repeated absences, and resigned instead. With help from attorneys with First Liberty Institute, Groff sued the USPS for failing to accommodate his religious practice as required under the federal law known as Title VII.
He lost in two lower federal courts until the Supreme Court agreed to hear his case.
Under Title VII, an employer must grant a religious accommodation to employees who request one if the request does not cause an “undue hardship” on the employer. But the statute does not define “undue hardship,” so it has been left to the courts to define and apply the term in various employment-related cases.
The Supreme Court confused the issue even more when, in a 1977 case (TWA v. Hardison) it attempted to apply the term to an airline employee’s Sabbath day off request. By defining “undue hardship” as anything more than a “de minimis” (aka trifling) cost to the employer, the high court created a situation where nearly anything could create “more than a de minimis” cost.
Since 1977, the Hardison case has not been helpful to employees. In fact, in Groff’s case, the lower courts ruled that the USPS was forced to deal with complaints from Groff’s co-workers about him being allowed to take Sundays off, creating an “undue hardship.”
Whatever Congress meant by “undue hardship,” it certainly must be a greater burden than a “trifling,” Groff argues. And dealing with complaints isn’t a cost to the business at all, he adds.
Several Supreme Court justices, including Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch, have each urged their colleagues to reexamine the Hardison ruling in other cases the high court has been asked to hear over the years. However, the high court has refused to hear those appeals.
Until now, that is.
As Groff’s petition to the Supreme Court states:
“The judgment below, at minimum, provides an opportunity to correct the prevalent and erroneous view among courts of appeals that an employer may establish undue hardship merely by showing that an accommodation burdens the plaintiff’s co-workers. This concept is irreconcilable with the statutory text, which requires the employer to demonstrate ‘undue hardship on the conduct of [its] business.’
“Making co-worker concerns dispositive means that an employer can nearly always establish undue hardship by pointing to an accommodation’s inevitable imposition on other employees, rendering Title VII subject to a heckler’s veto.”
A favorable ruling in the Groff case would protect the religious freedom of workers above and beyond simply requests for Sundays off to observe the Sabbath.
For example, Alliance Defending Freedom, which filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court in support of Groff, represents an Indiana school teacher who was forced to resign from his teaching position after refusing to use the “preferred pronouns” of his “transgender” students. His request to be able to use students’ last names as a religious accommodation to him was first granted, but later revoked after transgender students complained that they “took offense.”
The Indiana teacher’s case involved no cost to the school itself, other than having to listen to the complaints of a few students. That situation is very similar to Groff’s, which involved the USPS having to listen to the complaints of a few of Groff’s co-workers.
If workers are to have any meaningful rights with regard to the accommodation of their religious practices, the Supreme Court needs to reexamine the effect of the Hardison case and return to the text of Title VII’s meatier “undue hardship.” A victory for Groff will provide a welcome course correction in employment law that should benefit the religious freedom of American workers in the way Congress originally intended.
The case is Groff v. DeJoy.
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