What just happened?
On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Groff v. DeJoy, a significant religious liberty case that involves religious accommodations for a postal worker who refused to work on Sundays.
What is the case about?
According to First Liberty Institute, the law firm arguing the case for the petitioner, Gerald Groff is a United States Postal Service (USPS) worker in Pennsylvania who firmly believes he must “remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Ex. 20:8). When the post office began delivering Amazon packages on Sundays, Groff’s supervisor granted him an accommodation to observe Sunday Sabbath.
However, a few years later, the post office withdrew the accommodation and scheduled him on Sundays. Groff chose to transfer to a new post office that didn’t require Amazon delivery at that point, which meant sacrificing all his seniority on his path to becoming a full-time carrier. But then that new post office also began to require Sunday delivery.
For missing Sundays to honor the Lord’s Day, the USPS then subjected Gerald to eight separate predisciplinary reviews, each one requiring him to drive out of his way to the hub post office, adding extra driving time to his day while he was still required to fulfill his obligation to deliver his assigned route. He received a “Letter of Warning” and two separate suspensions (totaling 21 days) over the course of two years, all while working daily under the looming threat of losing his job each time he went to work.
During that time, says First Liberty, Gerald was subjected to harsh and unfair treatment, mocked by his supervisor, and docked pay without justification. After two years of progressive discipline, hostility from supervisors, and not knowing if any day was the day he would be terminated, Gerald resigned on January 18, 2019, and sued USPS for failing to reasonably accommodate his religious practice.
The lower courts refused to allow for Groff’s religious accommodation, citing the de minimis cost test that was first applied in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison (1977).
In January 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court accepted the case and will determine if the law requires employers to grant meaningful religious accommodations to people of faith.
What are the legal questions being considered in this case?
The questions presented before the Supreme Court are as follows:
1. Whether the court should disapprove the more-than-de-minimis-cost test for refusing religious accommodations under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 stated in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison
2. Whether an employer may demonstrate “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business” under Title VII merely by showing that the requested accommodation burdens the employee’s coworkers rather than the business itself
What was the reaction of the justices during the oral arguments?
Three current justices—Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch—have previously said the court should reconsider the standard set in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison. There seemed to be a similar reaction to this case.
“Some courts have taken this de minimis standard and run with it,” said Justice Neil Gorsuch.
“Maybe,” he added, “we could do a good day’s work and put a period at the end of it and say that is not the law.”
Justice Amy Coney Barrett also suggested the case be sent back to lower courts with this instruction: “To be clear, de minimis doesn’t mean trifling cost.”
Why is this case important?
The case allows the Supreme Court to correct a previous ruling that undermined religious liberty protections provided by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Title VII prohibits workplace discrimination based on various factors, including religion. Under Title VII, employers have a duty to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs or practices unless doing so would cause “undue hardship” for the employer. But in the 1977 U.S. Supreme Court case Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, the Supreme Court instituted the “de minimis cost test” as the legal standard for determining whether the accommodation of an employee’s religious beliefs would cause undue hardship.
In simple terms, it means that if an employer can accommodate an employee’s religious practices with minimal cost or disruption to the business, they must do so. If, however, the cost or burden of the accommodation is more than just minimal or insignificant, the employer might not be required to provide the accommodation, as it could be considered an undue hardship. As Justice Thurgood Marshall noted in his dissent to the Hardison ruling, the de minimis test “effectively nullif[ies]” Title VII’s promise of a workplace free from religious discrimination.
By only requiring employers to accommodate religious practices if the cost or burden is minimal, it has become too easy for employers to claim that an accommodation would impose an undue hardship, even if the actual effect on their business is relatively minor. This has led to situations where employees’ religious needs are not met, even when accommodating them wouldn’t significantly disrupt the workplace. During the pandemic, some employers relied on this test in denying religious accommodations for vaccine mandates. It has also been used in other contexts, such as prohibiting religious garb, in objections to moral conduct, and—as in the Groff case—Sabbath observance.
The de minimis cost test can also be somewhat subjective, as it relies on courts to determine whether a particular accommodation imposes more than a minimal cost or burden. This subjectivity can lead to inconsistent outcomes, with some employees receiving accommodations for their religious beliefs while others in similar situations do not.
The de minimis cost test also doesn’t adequately account for the importance of religious practices to the individual employee. By focusing on the cost or burden to the employer, the test can overlook the significance of the accommodation to the employee’s ability to fully practice his or her religion. As a result, the de minimis cost test undervalues religious liberty, placing it at a disadvantage compared to other workplace concerns.
A more balanced approach would require employers to demonstrate that an accommodation would cause significant hardship, rather than just a minimal cost, before they’re exempt from providing it. This higher threshold could better protect employees’ religious liberty while still recognizing that employers shouldn’t be overburdened by excessive costs or disruptions.
By setting a low threshold for what constitutes an undue hardship and focusing on the cost or burden to the employer, the test may not always adequately protect employees’ rights to practice their religion and could lead to inconsistencies in how religious accommodations are provided. The Supreme Court should restore Title VII’s workplace protections for religious employees to what Congress intended before the Court changed the meaning of the statute.
When will the case be decided?
A decision is expected by the end of June 2023.