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Religious liberty at work

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WORLD Radio - Religious liberty at work

Recent Supreme Court and lower court rulings protect religious liberty in the public square


The U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C., June 29 Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: It’s Thursday the 6th of July, 2023.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Myrna Brown.

PAUL BUTLER, HOST: And I’m Paul Butler. First up, religious liberty at work.

Last week, the Supreme Court handed down its biggest decisions of the term. In rulings on affirmative action, student loan forgiveness, and free speech, the high court was largely split down ideological lines. But in the case of a postal worker denied time off on Sunday, the court ruled unanimously in the letter carrier’s favor.

BROWN: What did the justices say, and how does it affect the ongoing debate over religious liberty in the public square?

Joining us now to talk about it is WORLD legal reporter Steve West.

Steve, good morning to you.

STEVE WEST: Good morning, Myrna.

BROWN: Can you tell us about the background to Groff’s case?

WEST: Sure. Gerald Groff was for many years a mail carrier working out of a small rural post office in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania---Amish country. He's an evangelical Christian who believes this Sunday is the Christian Sabbath, meaning it's a day only for worship and rest, not work. That really wasn't an issue for Groff until the Postal Service contracted with Amazon to deliver packages for Amazon on Sunday. And even then, Groff's fellow employees trade his shifts with him allowing him to be off on Sunday, but then, at some point in 2019, that wasn't okay. A supervisor wouldn't accommodate him, saying it had a negative impact on other employees and on their morale. Rather than wait to get fired, Groff resigned and then he sued.

BROWN: And after he sued, his case made its way through the lower courts to the Supreme Court where all nine justices ruled that the Postal Service had not properly considered Groff’s religious views. What was their rationale for ruling in Groff’s favor?

WEST: Back in April, when oral arguments were held, it was pretty clear that most of the Justices believed the law needed to be cleared up. At issue was language in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars religious discrimination in the workplace, among other things. The federal law requires most employers to make reasonable accommodations for an employee's religious beliefs unless doing so would cause undue hardship. Because of a 1977 ruling by the court, which spoke of this as a de minimis—or light burden, employers have had the upper hand. What this Court said is that this is not the standard, not even under the facts of that case, that for over 45 years courts had been misreading that decision. They said that for employers to deny an accommodation, they have to show that accommodating the employee would substantially increase the cost of doing business.

BROWN: What kind of signal does the unanimous ruling send to other government agencies and even big businesses about how to handle religious accommodations going forward?

WEST: Right, it doesn't address all the factual situations that will come up, you know, the court left that for employers and other courts to work out. But I think what it does is it tells government and private employers that they have to take seriously any claim by an employee that a workplace requirement will burden their religious beliefs. That could be an exception to a dress code, a Sabbath observance, or even objections to vaccine requirements. Boilerplate denials won't fly. Employers won't always be able to make accommodations—in fact, Groff hasn't won his case quite yet—but their justifications will be more strictly scrutinized under this ruling.

BROWN: Besides the Groff case, you’ve been watching other cases coming up through the lower courts. What are you seeing there as it relates to religious liberty in the public square?

WEST: Well one thing I've been following is a recent federal appeals court decision, a federal appeals court in New Orleans that ruled for a for-profit religious employer, that they're exempt from federal rules that require businesses to hire LGBT employees unwilling to abide by employers’ religious beliefs about sexual conduct. The court in that case addressed what has been an open issue since the Supreme Court ruling three years ago in Bostock v. Clayton County and a related case called Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC. Now, Harris had to do with the discharge of an employee who refused to comply with a Michigan funeral home's dress code, which required employees to dress in a manner sensitive to grieving family members and friends, that the EEOC attempted to force the business to allow a biologically male employee to wear a female uniform while interacting with the public. And there, justice Gorsuch indicated that the sex discrimination barred by Title VIII included sexual orientation and gender identity, and yet he said religious employers may have defenses like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, only in in that particular case, the defense had not been raised. Well, here it was raised in this particular case and the employer prevailed with the court saying that the government's interest in forcing the company to hire someone who could not agree to their standards of conduct was not sufficient to overcome the company's religious liberty interest.

BROWN: Looking at the bigger picture here, Steve, I’d like to hear what you think these cases indicate about the future religious liberty in the public square.

WEST: Well, you know, the whole trajectory of this Supreme Court has been over the last, not just this year, but the last two or three years has been toward prioritizing first amendment rights. There's a solid majority that support, you know, religious liberty and free speech. So that while there will still be challenges in some lower courts, this court is clearly siding with religious liberty and free speech, as it should. You know, what critics should realize is that, you know, this favors all faiths, not just the Christian faith, but all faiths and the right of all individuals to speak and not be forced to speak all kinds of ideas, even the ones that are culturally popular. 

BROWN: Steve West is a legal reporter for WORLD.

If you’re interested in reading his coverage of the lower court ruling in Braidwood Management versus EEOC, we’ve included a link in today’s transcript. Steve, thank you for joining us today.

WEST: Happy to be with you, Myrna.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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