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Last week, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Groff v. DeJoy, a case initiated by a former Postal Service worker, who is challenging decades-long precedent and seeking to expand the protections of workers who seek religious accommodations from employers. The petitioner, Gerald Groff, claims he was discriminated against when the U.S. Postal Service denied his request that he not be required to work on Sundays due to his religious belief that Sunday is a day of worship and rest. Groff, who is an evangelical Christian, claims that the USPS denied his legal right to accommodation on religious grounds under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and disciplined him for not reporting to work on Sundays. Consequently, Groff resigned from his position.  The USPS claims that Groff’s refusal to work Sundays adversely affected operations as well as worker morale. According to the USPS, Groff’s absences made timely Sunday deliveries more difficult as the remaining carriers had to deliver more mail and bred resentment among coworkers who were forced to cover Groff’s shifts and give up their family time and ability to attend church services, resulting in a tense work atmosphere.  A divided Third Circuit panel, citing the precedent set in its 1977 decision in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, agreed with the USPS and held that it did not violate Title VII by declining to grant Groff’s accommodation since exempting Groff from Sunday work caused an undue hardship.

Title VII bars employers from discriminating against workers based on religion and requires reasonable accommodations for a worker’s religious beliefs so long as those accommodations do not present an “undue burden” to the employer. In the present matter before the high court, Gross is requesting that the Court overturn its 1977 decision in Hardison, in which the Court held that it was an undue burden to require an employer to bear more than a de minimis cost in order accommodate a worker’s religious beliefs. Groff is advocating for an undue burden standard similar to that set forth in the Americans with Disabilities Act.  The ADA requires accommodations for disabled workers unless doing so presents an undue hardship on the employer. The ADA defines undue hardship as “an action requiring significant difficulty or expense” and provides factors for the court to consider in making that determination, such as the nature and cost of the accommodation in relation to the size, resources, nature, and structure of the employer’s operation.  42 U.S.C. §12111. 

During oral argument, Justices Ketanji Jackson, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor all expressed reluctance to overturn the well-settled precedent established in Hardison, stating that Congress had decades to import the language of the ADA in defining “undue hardship” under Title VII and declined to do so.  In instances where Congress has failed to act and there is an established statutory ruling, Justice Eagan stated that “We maintain what we said about what statutes mean.”  Likewise, Justice Jackson raised the concern of legislating from the bench and sending the message that a party could effectively do an end-around Congress if it refuses to change a statutory standard and say to the high court, “You give it to us.”  Justices also questioned how an overruling of Hardison would adversely affect the viability of collective bargaining agreements since the Hardison Court previously held that an employer was not required to breach a bargained-for seniority system in order to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs.

However, Justice Neil Gorsuch suggested that there was an opening for finding common ground between the parties as both sides seemed to agree that any test for undue burden should be “context-dependent,” taking into account the size of the employer, the nature of the request, and what reasonable options are available to the employer. Justice Gorsuch also commented that the “de minimis” standard could not be the test in isolation because Congress “does not pass civil rights legislation to have de minimis effect.” Justice Gorsuch went on to state that some courts have taken the “de minimis” language quite literally and stated that “anything more than trifling costs” will get the employer off the hook for religious accommodations, which the Justice posited all parties could agree was the wrong interpretation.  Justice Barrett and Chief Justice Roberts also hinted that it may be necessary to clarify the “de minimis” standard set forth in Hardison. Justice Alito, who has previously advocated for overturning Hardison, stated that there was “no reason religious workers should receive lesser protection than those covered by other accommodation statutes.”

Notwithstanding, even some of the Court’s conservative justices questioned the impact of Groff’s religious accommodation on workplace morale. Justices Barrett and Kavanaugh both suggested that Groff’s request would unduly burden his coworkers by requiring them to work his hours every Sunday.

The Court’s current conservative majority has previously exhibited a tendency to lean toward the side of the religious liberty party. However, it is questionable whether the Court will be willing to overturn decades-long precedent in this instance. Even if the Court does not expressly abrogate the Hardison standard but clarifies the standard to call for a more “context-dependent” approach, employers will need to revisit their policies and procedures for handling religious accommodation requests to ensure they are carefully considering the nature of the request as well as the potential options available for accommodating the religious beliefs of its employees. 

Buchanan’s Labor & Employment team of attorneys will continue to monitor this case and issue additional guidance after a decision is reached.  In the interim, should employers have any questions about its accommodation policies, please contact our team of attorneys.

  1. 42 U.S.C. §12111