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A clear ruling on religious accommodation

The Supreme Court unanimously protects religious employees

Gerald Groff speaks during TV interview outside the United State Postal Service office in Quarryville, Pa., on March 8. Associated Press/Photo by Carolyn Kaster

A clear ruling on religious accommodation

In a unanimous, landmark decision handed down today, the Supreme Court of the United States granted a major victory to former postal carrier Gerald Groff against the United States Postal Service, after Groff lost his job for observing the Sunday Sabbath.

The court held that federal law requires workplaces to accommodate their religious employees unless doing so would cause substantial costs for the business. Previously, employers could avoid granting religious accommodations to employees of faith simply by pointing to minimal effects.

This decision means that more employers with at least 15 employees in every state in the country will be legally required to respect their religious employees by granting them accommodations. Employees of faith often seek religious accommodations to honor their holy days, to take prayer breaks during the day, to dress according to their religious beliefs, or to otherwise not be forced to violate their religious beliefs on the job.

By addressing and adjusting a decades old decision from a case that has thwarted religious liberty protections for American employees ever since, the court has taken an important step in restoring religious liberty to the workplace.

At issue was whether the court’s 1977 decision in Trans World Airlines v. Hardison correctly defined “undue hardship” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. There, the court excused employers from accommodating religious employees if doing so meant more than a "de minimis," or minimal, burden on the employer.

Today, the Justices jettisoned the “de minimus” holding of Hardison. For the majority, Justice Alito stated, “The parties agree that the “de minimis” test is not right, but they differ in the alternative language they propose. The court thinks it is enough to say that what an employer must show is that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.”

The court is ensuring that religious Americans need not leave their faith at home when they go to work.

The Groff decision comes at a time when the court is restoring the First Amendment’s promise of the free exercise of religion for Americans.

Last year, the justices issued a truly landmark ruling in favor of Joe Kennedy, a high school football coach who was fired by his school district for kneeling in prayer at the 50-yard line after games. In another decision last year, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a group of parents who wanted to send their children to private religious schools through a state sponsored tuition assistance program in Maine. The state refused, declaring religious schools ineligible. The Supreme Court held excluding religious schools from tuition assistance programs because they teach from their religious perspectives is unconstitutional religious discrimination.

Through these opinions, the Supreme Court made it clear that the Constitution does not “‘compel the government to purge from the public sphere’ anything an objective observer could reasonably infer endorses or ‘partakes of the religious.’” Now, the court is ensuring that religious Americans need not leave their faith at home when they go to work.

Groff is a former postal employee from rural Pennsylvania who joined the postal service because it fit his desire to have a great career that also allowed him to honor the Lord’s Day. At the time he joined, the USPS didn’t deliver on Sundays, but when Amazon purchased a contract requiring the USPS to deliver packages on Sundays, Gerald was forced to choose to either work Sundays or give up his job. While he was willing to work with the post office to find a reasonable accommodation, the post office was not.

After two years of relentless hostility from the post office, Gerald felt he had no choice but to resign. He then sued.

The court’s opinion now vindicates the words of Justice Thurgood Marshall back in 1977, when dissenting against the Hardison decision, he stated: “An employer, the court concludes, need not grant even the most minor special privilege to religious observers to enable them to follow their faith.” That day is now over.

No American should be forced to choose between their faith and their job. At long last, the Supreme Court agrees that religious employees deserve meaningful legal protections.

Stephanie Taub

Stephanie Taub is senior counsel for First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit law firm dedicated to defending religious freedom for all. First Liberty represents Mr. Groff.

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