Supreme Court rules unanimously for Sabbath-keeper
The decision ups the burden on employers seeking to deny religious accommodations
A unanimous Supreme Court on Thursday told a lower court to take another look at an evangelical Christian postal worker’s request to have Sundays off for his Sabbath observance. The decision increases the expectations for employers seeking to deny religious accommodations to employees.
Writing for the court, Justice Samuel Alito said that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires an employer that denies a religious accommodation to show that granting such a request would substantially increase the cost of doing business.
Thursday’s ruling will affect every workplace that employs 15 or more workers. Employers will have to do more to justify denying an employee an accommodation to honor holy days, take prayer breaks during the day, dress according to religious beliefs, or otherwise keep their religious beliefs on the job.
Gerald Groff pressed his case against the U.S. Postal Service after the agency’s contract with Amazon required carriers to start delivering packages on Sundays. At first, the Postal Service honored Groff’s request for Sundays off, with other carriers filling his spot in the rural Pennsylvania post office, but problems eventually surfaced. Supervisors said Groff’s absences created a tense environment and contributed to morale problems because other carriers had to deliver more Sunday mail. Assuming he would be fired, Groff resigned, filing his lawsuit in 2019.
Thursday’s ruling reverses a May 2022 ruling by a panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that sided with USPS, finding that Groff’s request to have Sundays off posed too great a hardship on the Postal Service. Following the court’s much-criticized 1977 ruling in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, Circuit Judge Patty Shwartz focused on the burden Groff’s exemption imposed on his co-workers, disruption to the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale. Hardison defined “undue hardship” as a de minimis burden—a showing of only trivial or minimal costs to meet the standard—leading Shwartz to hand the Postal Service a win.
Dissenting Circuit Judge Thomas Hardiman disagreed, arguing that Title VII focuses on the effects on an employer’s business, not co-workers. The Supreme Court agreed and rejected an exclusive focus on the effects of an accommodation on co-workers.
While not overruling Hardison, Alito rejected lower courts’ use of the de minimis language as the standard. Instead, he opted for both a broader consideration of an accommodation’s effect on the workplace and a higher burden on employers.
“We hold that showing ‘more than a de minimis cost,’ … does not suffice to establish ‘undue hardship’ under Title VII,” concluded Alito. “We … understand Hardison to mean that ‘undue hardship’ is shown when a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business.” He said employers needed to consider the practical effects of accommodations in light of their company’s nature, size, and operating costs.
That can include effects on co-workers, said Alito, even as he agreed with U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar that some co-worker effects were “off the table.” He also agreed that co-workers’ animosity to a particular religion or to the notion of religious accommodation could not be considered as a hardship.
Numerous religious groups weighed in on the case, a fact not lost on Alito, who noted that “a bevy of diverse religious organizations” said that employers overused the de minimis standard to deny accommodations He referenced friend-of-the-court briefs filed on behalf of Sikhs, Muslims, Orthodox Jews, and Seventh-day Adventists.
Yet Alito rejected Groff’s request—and that of many religious organizations—to overrule Hardison and replace it with a “significant difficulty or expense” standard. Instead, Alito left what he called a “clarified context-specific standard” to be applied by the trial court—meaning Groff still faces a trial in which the facts in his case can be more fully developed and considered.
In recent years, the court has often split along ideological lines in cases, with a conservative majority backing religious plaintiffs—upholding a high school football coach’s post-game prayer or a Christian school’s right to a state tuition benefit. But Thursday’s ruling demonstrates that the justices can come together in some religious contexts as they did last year in ruling that Boston violated free speech rights by refusing a request to fly a Christian flag on city grounds.
Kelly Shackelford, chief counsel for First Liberty Institute, a religious liberty law firm involved in representing Groff, called the ruling a “landmark victory, not only for Gerald but for every American.”
And while victory is not complete, the former mail carrier celebrated the ruling. “I am grateful to have had my case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court and that they have decided to uphold religious liberty,” Groff said in a statement issued after the ruling. “I hope this decision allows others to be able to maintain their convictions without living in fear of losing their jobs because of what they believe.”