Gerald Groff, a Christian former postal worker living in rural southeast Pennsylvania, says he was not allowed to observe Sabbath on Sundays and was punished when he did not work those days.
His fight with the post office—which argued that Groff’s requests to take all Sundays off led to unreasonable burdens on his coworkers—has made it up to the Supreme Court, and the outcome could affect far more than one religious postal worker’s schedule. The case, Groff v. DeJoy, will be argued on Tuesday and is set to become the latest major argument before a court that has proven to be sympathetic to religious freedom claims.
“The stakes are much bigger than Sabbath observance,” says Elizabeth Sepper, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin and expert on religious liberty. The case’s far reaching implications in workplaces could affect the ability for Muslim women to wear a hijab, Jews to wear a yarmulke, or Rastafarians to wear their hair in dreadlocks. It could affect religious employees’ ability to attend scheduled prayer services such as Jummah or Sunday church. It could even affect employees who refuse vaccines or don’t want to have contact with patients who need abortion care.
Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act requires employers to show that an employee’s request for religious accommodations would create an “undue hardship” in order to deny it. The Supreme Court undercut this provision in 1997 when it ruled in Trans World Airlines v. Hardison that the “undue hardship” term means that employers only need to prove they face more than a “de minimis” (very minimal) cost to deny a religious accommodation.
Experts expect this Supreme Court will affirm that in order to deny religious accommodation requests, employers need to abide by a higher standard—one more reflective of the “undue hardship” enshrined in federal law. “In ordinary usage, most people understand the word ‘undue hardship’ to mean something more than just a minimal cost or inconvenience,” says Joshua McDaniel, director of Harvard University’s Religious Freedom Clinic, who submitted an amicus brief on behalf of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in support of Groff’s position.
In the Groff case, the United States Postal Service (USPS) had initially allowed him to avoid Sunday shifts. But after the post office where Groff worked joined other nationwide carriers in delivering Amazon packages in 2015, the company eventually said his services were needed on Sunday, too. As Amazon deliveries soared, swapping shifts with coworkers was no longer working out; the local postmaster had to deliver mail himself given the lack of staff, and he argued that finding someone to cover the Sunday shift was time consuming and an added burden for him. Other workers complained that Groff’s accommodations meant they had to take on more weekend shifts. Groff refused to work half days on Sunday after attending worship services, saying, “I told my supervisor, ‘it’s the Lord’s day. It’s not the Lord’s morning.‘”
Groff claims that by 2019 he faced an ultimatum: practice his faith or lose his job. He resigned in January 2019 and sued USPS; he lost in federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit in Philadelphia. The courts relied on the Hardison standard, which required showing just a minimal cost to employers in order to lawfully deny Groff’s request.
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Groff argues the 1977 Supreme Court ruling’s liberal interpretation of “undue hardship” is erroneous and harmful to employees. “That sort of interpretation can’t really be squared with the plain language of Title VII,” says Stephanie Barclay, associate professor of law at the University of Notre Dame Law School and director of the law school’s Religious Liberty Initiative. (The university’s religious liberty clinic filed an amicus brief in the case supporting Groff.)
Groff is not asking for blanket acceptance of religious accommodations but rather more intentional scrutiny about what constitutes an “undue hardship.” That could mean requiring the employer to show evidence of difficulty in light of their financial resources, number of workers, and the nature of its operation before excusing an employee from accommodations, Barclay says. She points out that “employers accommodate people for lots of reasons all the time, including pregnancy and disability; we view that as a good thing in our pluralist American society.”
The local post office in Groff’s area didn’t have many employees, so co-workers had to pick up the slack from Groff’s Sundays off—which some experts say could constitute an “undue burden” even in a stricter standard than Hardison‘s. “Burdens on co-workers need to be counted as a hardship,” Sepper says.
The Postal Service’s argument relies on the idea that Hardison is precedent and as such, it should not be easily overturned. “They argue that Congress has the ability to revise its own statute in response to a Supreme Court ruling… Congress has had some time to amend the statute to nullify the Hardison ruling if it had wanted to, but it hasn’t yet done so,” McDaniel says.
The low standard established in Hardison means employers have often scored legal victories in federal court after denying employees’ religious accommodations on issues ranging from physical appearance and dress to Ramadan fasting—and on other requests concerning the Sabbath. A court ruled in a 1992 case that a Seventh-day Adventist working at the Chrysler Corporation could not have his schedule accommodated to observe the Sabbath because it would have cost the company about $1,500 a year. A court upheld denying Sabbath accommodations for Orthodox Jews in a 2006 case involving Quest Diagnostics because it could “negatively affect [the] morale of employees” without the same religious needs. In 2018, a court upheld Walgreens’ decision to fire a Black Seventh Day Adventist employee who worked at a call center and refused to work on Sabbath.
Legal experts have pointed out that employers’ denials of religious accommodations have a disproportionate effect on workers from minority religious groups and low-income earners, who make up an outsized number of religious accommodation claims. Muslims, for example, make up less than 1% of the U.S. population but account for more than 18% of such claims, according to the amicus brief filed by the Muslim Public Affairs Council. Working class employees are often the ones asking for religious accommodations; almost three-quarters of claims involve those in non-professional positions, such as truck drivers, security guards and factory workers, per the brief. “Workers from minority religious groups, or low income earners don’t have the bargaining power or the cultural cachet to easily convince their employer to make changes or accommodation to allow their non-threatening religious practices,” McDaniel says.
Still, there have been exceptions of employees winning in court. The Supreme Court sided with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Abercrombie and Fitch in a case in 2015 in which the apparel company refused to hire a 17-year-old Muslim woman who wore a hijab because it violated the store’s “look policy.” And this Supreme Court, made up of six conservative justices and three liberals, has been generally open to claims of religious discrimination by Christians. The court’s verdict in the Groff case could clarify the standard employers need to meet to deny religious accommodations throughout the country, altering and potentially strengthening protections for all religious workers going forward.
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