(WASHINGTON) — The Supreme Court on Tuesday appeared to agree on the need to clarify a long-standing rule for when U.S. employers must accommodate the religious practices of employees but stopped short of suggesting a former U.S. Postal Service letter carrier deserves his job back.
The case, which could have an impact on workplaces across America, involves Gerald Groff, an evangelical Christian, who was disciplined by USPS for skipping Sunday shifts to observe the Sabbath rather than deliver packages for Amazon as assigned. He later resigned.
“Employees should not be forced to choose between their faith and their job,” Groff’s attorney Aaron Streett told the justices.
The Postal Service has said Groff’s absences created a significant burden on his coworkers and business operations — especially during the peak holiday delivery season at his rural Pennsylvania post office — harming morale and driving several staff to resign or relocate.
“The lower courts correctly found ‘undue hardship’ on these facts,” said Biden administration Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, who was defending the agency’s policy. “Petitioner’s job specifically required him to work on Sundays.
“His absences created direct concrete burdens on other carriers who had to stay on their shifts longer to get the mail delivered,” she said.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1965 prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of religion unless an employer can show that “reasonably accommodating” the employee would create “undue hardship” on their business.
The Supreme Court interpreted that standard 46 years ago in the case TWA v. Hardison to mean anything more than a “de minimis cost” on business operations. It’s a very low bar that religious freedom advocates say discriminates against people of faith.
A majority of justices suggested during oral arguments that the court’s precedent should be tightened — raising the requirement for employers to accommodate religious observance while balancing the business’s need to make money.
Several justices indicated that Groff’s case should be sent back to lower courts for reconsideration under the clarified standard. It was not clear, however, whether a majority of justices believed USPS was obligated to accommodate his absences on Sundays.
Justice Brett Kavanagh repeatedly said the court should utilize “substantial additional costs” — found in a footnote of the 1977 Hardison decision — as the definition of what would exceed a “de minimis cost” to employers.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett suggested that changes in morale or staffing that might follow from a religious accommodation — though difficult to quantify — would also need to be considered.
“You might have many religious people in a workplace seeking the same accommodation for Sundays off, ” she said, “and morale could be very important.”
Prelogar argued that the justices should make clear that any time an employer would be forced to regularly pay a “premium wage” (overtime) or regularly operate shorthanded as a result of religious accommodation would qualify as an “undue hardship.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor was perhaps least sympathetic to Groff’s arguments, suggesting the court should defer to the letter of the law and leave it to lower courts to continue interpreting the standard on their own.
“What’s clear to me… is there is no [clarity] we can give because it’s all contextual,” she said. “The best we can do is do what Congress told us to do.”
Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson also appeared hesitant to embrace sweeping changes to the status quo, noting that Congress could long ago have clarified federal anti-discrimination law if it wanted to but did not.
Several of the Court’s conservatives also flashed uneasiness with going too far in their decision. Kavanaugh appeared uncomfortable with a ruling that would broadly expand religious freedom at the expense of an employer’s bottom line.
“One thing about this case that I think makes it a little more difficult is that there can be religious interests on both sides,” Kavanaugh said.
“I’m looking for common ground here,” declared Justice Neil Gorsuch, who pointed out that both the government and Groff appeared to agree that the rules needed to be updated.
“Some courts have taken the ‘de minimis’ language and run with it,” Gorsuch said. Perhaps we should “clarify ‘de minimis’ and remand back to the lower court and be done with it.”
Piped in Justice Elena Kagan: “I’m happy we’re all kumbayahing together!”
Prelogar deadpanned, “My arguments don’t always go that way.”
The court is expected to rule in the case by the end of June.
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