Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination “because of . . . religion.” The US Supreme Court recently agreed to hear a case questioning whether that law requires the US Postal Service (USPS) to accommodate a religious postal employee who refuses to work on Sundays.
It’s the case Groff vs. DeJoy. Gerald Groff is a former mailman who left the USPS after being disciplined for refusing to work on Sundays. He claims he was entitled to a religious accommodation under both Title VII and the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972, which amended the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by defining “religion” to include “all aspects of religious observance and practice, as and beliefs, unless the employer proves that it is unable to reasonably accommodate the religious observance or practice of the employee or future employee without undue hardship in the conduct of the employer’s business.”
Groff and his attorneys argue that the USPS’s acceptance of Groff’s Sunday observance of the Sabbath was not “unduly onerous.” “The 1972 amendment to Title VII was intended to ensure that no worker could make the cruel choice of surrendering his religion or his job,” they told the court. “On its face, the statute provides strong protections for religious employees—after all, ‘undue hardship’ suggests that an employer must incur significant expense or hardship before being excused from offering an accommodation.”
Groff lost last year to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, which held that granting religious accommodation in the workplace would place an undue hardship on the USPS. Groff’s refusal to work on Sundays, the appeals court said, “created a ‘tense atmosphere'” because other workers “had to work more on Sundays to cover Groff’s absences,” which itself created “resentment toward management.” The court further stated, “Groff’s absence also required the other carriers to deliver more mail than they would normally deliver on Sundays.”
The 3rd Circuit based its decision in significant part on Trans World Airlines v. Hardison (1977), in which the Supreme Court said that requiring an employer “to bear more than a de minimis The cost” of creating a religious accommodation “is an excessive hardship.” Religious activists, including social conservatives, argue that Hardison unjustifiably favors employers over workers. Groff and his attorneys argue that the Court “should reconsider and disapprove Hardisondefinition of undue hardship.”
At least three members of the current Supreme Court appear ready to side with Groff and overrule Hardison beside the road. In 2020, the Court declined to hear a similar case on religious accommodations at work. Writing accordingly, Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, agreed that the Court was entitled to ignore it but, “in an appropriate case,” the Court should “consider whether Hardisoninterpretation should be rejected.” According to Alito, Thomas, and Gorsuch, “HardisonHis interpretation does not represent the most likely interpretation of the statutory term ‘undue hardship’.”
Assuming those three judges can attract at least two more votes, which I suspect they probably can, Hardison it appears that it could be discarded in favor of a statutory interpretation that expands the scope of federally required religious accommodations at work.