Groff v. Dejoy, 600 U.S. ____ (2023) is an example of a case in which the U.S. Supreme Court clarified an earlier decision that had been commonly employed in ascertaining the degree to which employers had to accommodate the religious faith of workers under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which had been modified in 1972. This law requires accommodation of the religious beliefs of workers except when it would impose an “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business,” an understanding that Congress had affirmed in 1972.
In Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison (1977), in which considerations of seniority had played a big role, the court had made a statement indicating that such accommodation required no more than a “de minimis” [too small to be meaningful] effort, and this statement had been used to downplay the responsibilities of employers to accommodate religious individuals in such situations.
Case involves postal worker who believed Sundays are for worship, not work
Justice Samuel Alito wrote the court’s unanimous decision in Groff. He explained that the case had arisen when Gerald Groff, an evangelical Christian who believed that he should devote Sundays to worship and rest, began working for the United States Postal Service (USPS). When hired in 2012 as a rural carrier associate he was not required to work on Sunday, but this changed when the USPS agreed to make deliveries for Amazon on that day.
Groff initially transferred to another USPS location, but Sunday deliveries began there as well. When Groff refused Sunday work, he was subject to “progressive discipline” and subsequently resigned. He then sued claiming that USPS could have accommodated his Sunday worship without undue hardship, but, relying on the de minimis requirement associated with Trans World Airlines, both the U.S. District Court and the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed his case.
Alito pointed out that Title VII had made it illegal for employers “to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual, with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges [of] employment, because of such individual’s . . . religion.” Initially, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) had interpreted this provision as requiring reasonable accommodations that did not cause an undue hardship on the employer’s business.
Earlier ruling gave wider room for employers to reject religious accommodations
In Trans World Airlines, the court had to ascertain whether an employer had to disrupt a labor-negotiated seniority system to accommodate Hardison who had begun absenting himself from work on the Sabbath after a religious conversion. Relying on the three-part Lemon Test, which Alito described as “now abrogated,” the court had interpreted such accommodation as an undue “establishment” of religion because it would have advanced religion and possibly entangled government and religion. The principal issue was the need to abrogate seniority privileges, but other courts had primarily latched onto the decision’s apparent endorsement of the “de minimis” standard.
Alito cited briefs from a wide variety of religious faiths that suggested that this standard “has blessed the denial of even minor accommodation in many cases, making it harder for members of minority faiths to enter the job market.” Alito believed, however, that both Title VII and the Hardison decision called for greater scrutiny.
Court: Employers must provide religious accommodation unless it causes ‘undue hardship’
Alito cited a variety of definitions to indicate that avoiding an “undue hardship” required far more than a willingness to incur de minimis costs. Instead, a hardship is “something hard to bear,” or very burdensome, a determination that had not been met in Groff’s case. The court believed that past EEOC guidelines in this area had largely allowed religious accommodation that did not impose an undue hardship on employees, without necessarily approving each EEOC ruling in this area.
In place of the de minimis standard, Alito ruled that “an employer who fails to provide an accommodation has a defense only if the hardship is ‘undue.’” He further ruled that consideration of employee biases or hostility to particular religious exercises had no place in such determinations.
Court: Forcing others to work overtime is not enough to constitute ‘undue hardship’
Without actually deciding Groff’s fate in this case, Alito said that “(f)aced with an accommodation request like Groff’s, it would not be enough for an employer to conclude that forcing other employees to work overtime would constitute an undue hardship. Consideration of other options, such as voluntary shift swapping, would also be necessary.” The case was remanded back to the lower courts for further consideration.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor authored a concurring opinion, joined by Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, agreeing that Hardison had been misinterpreted and stressing the need to apply statutes as they had been written. She noted that “(b)ecause the ‘conduct of [a] business’ plainly includes the management and performance of the business’s employees, undue hardship on the conduct of a business may include undue hardship on the business’s employees.”
Case has parallels with earlier post office controversies
The case is reminiscent of the controversy over Sunday mail that developed in early 19th century America. The decision to open post offices for Sunday mail pitted those favoring increased commerce and separation of church and state against those who were concerned about governmental violations of God’s law and the imposition that mail deliveries would make on the free exercise rights of employees who objected to working on Sundays.
Although Groff identified himself as an evangelical Christian, the court believed that he represented individuals from a variety of religious minorities who might be subject to discrimination if the bar to accommodation was too low.
Notably, no one on the court disputed Alito’s assertion that the Lemon Test was “now abrogated.” Consistent with other decisions of the Roberts Court, this one indicated that accommodation of individuals’ free exercise rights would not be considered to be an undue establishment of religion unless the accommodations themselves proved to impose undue hardships on employers.
John Vile is professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University.