Friday, September 22, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Friday, September 22, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Supreme Court skeptical of extra accommodations for religious workers

A postal worker’s request to rewrite workplace accommodations for employees appeared to fall flat at the high court. 

WASHINGTON (CN) — The majority of the high court rejected attempts to reshape legal jurisprudence on religious accommodations Tuesday, opting instead for an approach that would affirm their own precedents. 

“I’m happy we’re all kumbaya-ing together,” Justice Elena Kagan said during oral arguments where a former U.S. Postal Service employee is fighting for a permanent pass on Sunday Sabbath. 

Seeming to coalesce around the position of the Biden administration, most of the justices appear hesitant to answer more questions than required for an immediate resolution of the dispute. 

“It seems to me there’s enough on our plate with the undue-burden standard,” Chief Justice John Roberts said 

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination against employees’ religious beliefs. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission interprets the statute to force employers to make accommodations for employee beliefs unless they cause an undue hardship on the business. 

At the center of the case before the justices is a prior interpretation of the undue hardship standard. In the 1977 case Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, the Supreme Court sided with an airline union whose employee wanted a Saturday Sabbath accommodation. For almost 50 years, the courts have been using the test laid out in Hardison — referred to as the de minimus test — to evaluate accommodation claims. 

Kagan said the court should not disturb this precedent since upending stare decisis requires a ruling to be erroneous — which she says Hardison is not. 

“You can count on, like, a finger how many times we have overruled a statutory ruling in that context,” the Obama appointee said. 

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson said Congress should fix the issue — if there even is one. Jackson said if the court bends to arguments that would overturn parts of Hardison, it would be allowing utilization of the courts to circumvent what legislators otherwise could not accomplish. 

"I guess I'm concerned that a person could fail to get Congress to give them what they want with respect to changing the statutory standard and then just come to the court and say, you give it to us," the Biden appointee said.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh said the case before the court might be asking for something the justices can not provide. 

“I’m not sure we can give a whole manual of how it will play out,” the Trump appointee said of the various applications of the court’s precedent. 

The case before the court comes for Gerald Groff, whose career as a USPS carrier ended when the agency could not accommodate his requests as a devout Evangelical Christian. Groff calls the observance of Sunday Sabbath essential to his religious practice, but his job as a rural carrier associate required him to work a flexible schedule that included Sundays and holidays. 

USPS attempted to accommodate Groff’s request but was ultimately unable to do so without burdening other employees. Other carriers were forced to work extra shifts, and one forced to cover Groff’s shifts even filed a grievance with the union. 

Groff would miss over two dozen shifts before USPS took disciplinary action against him. He later resigned and sued the agency. 

The lower courts sided with USPS, finding that accommodating Groff’s Sunday Sabbath requests placed an undue hardship on his employer. 

Groff told the justices that Hardison does not adequately protect the rights of workers. 

“This court should reject the government’s watered-down test for undue hardship,” Groff's lawyer, Aaron Streett with Baker Botts, said. “It will provide inadequate protection for religious liberty in the workplace.” 

Groff would instead have the court apply a standard closer to what is set out in the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

“A diabetic employee could receive snack breaks under the ADA but not prayer breaks under Title VII,” Streett said. 

To fight against arguments that Congress should address Groff’s concerns, his attorney said Congress could have felt hamstrung by the court’s establishment clause jurisprudence. 

Kagan called this theory unusual and said it would require the use of a “fortuneteller apparatus” to know what was in lawmakers’ minds. 

The government said Groff’s case was not representative of jurisprudence in this area. 

“For almost 50 years, courts have applied Hardison when analyzing undue hardship under Title VII,” U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar said. “A substantial body of case law has developed to guide that context-dependent analysis and that case law provide meaningful protection to religious observants.” 

While the majority of justices appeared to accept most of Prelogar’s arguments, Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito seemed opposed to them. Alito said the court’s ruling in Hardison was “an exercise in constitutional avoidance.” 

Follow @KelseyReichmann
Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights, Employment, Religion

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.