Supreme Court seems open to considering more religious accommodations in the workplace

Gerald Groff Former U.S. postal worker Gerald Groff believes his religious freedom was violated when he was reprimanded for refusing to work on Sundays. | First Liberty Institute

The U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority seemed open to expanding religious rights protections in the workplace during oral arguments late Tuesday morning, but some were hesitant about making any far-reaching changes to legal precedent.

All nine justices heard oral arguments in Groff V. DeJoy, a lawsuit brought by Gerald Groff, a mail carrier who sought a religious accommodation from the U.S. Postal Service that would have exempted him from working on Sundays. Groff, who was originally granted the accommodation and later had it rescinded, is represented by lawyers from the First Liberty Institute, a Christian legal organization in Texas.

Although Title VII of the Civil Rights Act requires employers to grant certain religious accommodations to employees, current Supreme Court precedent states they do not need to grant an accommodation that would impose “undue hardship” on the employer. Groff’s lawyer, Aaron Streett, asked the court to adopt a new nationwide standard to clarify the meaning of undue hardship to ensure religious rights receive stronger protections.

Streett told the justices that lower courts across the country have interpreted “undue hardship” differently and said this case is about the question of “what’s our yardstick or what’s our metric here” and “what do we apply the undue hardship standard to?”

He said some courts have applied a “de minimis” test, which asserts that anything more than a minor inconvenience could be considered an “undue hardship.” He urged the court to adopt a more rigorous standard.

“We believe the best plain text meaning of ‘undue hardship’ is ‘significant difficulty or expense,’” Streett told the justices.

To demonstrate that an accommodation is an undue hardship, Streett said the employer should need to provide “actual evidence in the record that goes beyond [a loss of] morale” that shows a “concrete effect on the operations of the business,” such as evidence that workers have become so overburdened that they cannot do their jobs or serve customers.

“It certainly can’t be what we have here,” Streett added, “where the post office had an accommodation that was working and just abandoned it.”

Solicitor General Elizabeth B. Prelogar, who represented the postal service, argued that the current “case law [already] provides meaningful protections for religious rights.” She argued that “it’s just incorrect to say that there is not a substantial amount of accommodation happening and that courts are just reflexively denying these claims.”

“[Groff’s] absences created [a] direct concrete burden on other carriers who had to stay on their shifts longer to get the mail delivered,” Prelogar said. “That caused problems with the timely delivery of mail and it actually produced employee retention problems with one carrier quitting and another carrier transferring and another carrier filing a union grievance. That is an undue hardship under any reasonable standard.”

Prelogar said she would be open to certain clarifications to the standard but opposed any new standards that would uproot court precedent.

The conservative justices expressed opposition to the use of a “de minimis” test but seemed cautious about adopting an entirely different standard as suggested by Streett. Justice Amy Coney Barrett opined that “no one’s defending the [de minimis] test” and Justice Brett Kavanaugh appeared skeptical of a new standard when he repeatedly pressed Streett on how it would work in practice.

Similarly, Justice Neil Gorsuch said “there is so much common ground here between the parties” and criticized the use of a “de minimis” standard while suggesting that a clarification might work better than entirely new standards.

“Some courts have taken this ‘de minimis’ language and [run] with it and say anything more than a trifling will get the employer out of any concerns here,” Gorsuch said. “And that’s wrong and we all agree that’s wrong.”

The other justices also seemed skeptical of creating entirely new standards. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson noted that Congress could expand religious rights protections if it wanted to and Justice Elena Kagan pressed Streett on whether there was “always going to be a disruption to the business?” with any type of accommodation.

The Supreme Court’s decision in this case could affect religious rights protections in the workplace throughout the country.

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