Supreme Court Eases Path for Religious Accommodations in Workplace

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    The Supreme Court has issued a ruling that simplifies the process for employees to seek religious accommodations in the workplace. The case involved Gerald Groff, an evangelical Christian mail carrier who had requested not to work on Sundays due to his religious beliefs. Groff expressed hope that the decision would enable others to uphold their convictions without the fear of job loss.

    The case will now return to lower courts for further examination under the new standard set by the Supreme Court. The U.S. Postal Service, represented by spokeswoman Felicia Lott, stated that the ruling aligns with their existing practices of accommodating the sincerely held religious beliefs of their employees. Consequently, they anticipate a favorable outcome in the case.

    Groff argued that it was challenging for employees to assert religious claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits workplace discrimination based on various factors, including religion. In a unanimous ruling authored by Justice Samuel Alito, the Supreme Court clarified the interpretation of a 1977 ruling known as Trans World Airlines v. Hardison. The court emphasized that employers are not obligated to make accommodations that impose even a minimal burden, referred to as a “de minimis” burden in Latin.

    The court’s decision emphasizes that the hardship faced by employers needs to exceed a minimal level. Justice Alito noted that future courts should evaluate whether a hardship is substantial based on the context of an employer’s business, using a common-sense approach applied to any similar test.

    Groff, a noncareer employee, served as an auxiliary mailman in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, region from 2012 to 2019 before resigning. He filled in for other workers, including on weekends and holidays. Groff resigned and sued the Postal Service, alleging a failure to accommodate his request. A federal judge ruled that the Postal Service had provided a reasonable accommodation and offering more would cause undue hardship to the employer and Groff’s co-workers. The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia agreed with this decision in May 2022.

    Groups representing various religious faiths, including the American Hindu Coalition, the American Sikh Coalition, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, filed briefs supporting Groff. These groups expressed concerns over the negative impact of the existing Supreme Court precedent on religious individuals, particularly Muslim women who wear hijabs and face employment difficulties due to uniform policies not accommodating their religious attire.

    The American Postal Workers Union, representing approximately 200,000 members, submitted a brief cautioning the court about the potential disadvantage to workers who do not share the same religious beliefs if a religious preference for weekend scheduling is established.

    In a separate case in 2020, the court declined to hear a similar matter involving a Seventh-day Adventist employee at a Walgreens call center who requested not to work on Saturdays, the day of rest for the Christian denomination. However, three conservative justices expressed openness to revisiting the 1977 ruling’s definition of “undue hardship.” Following the rejection of that case, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away, and Justice Amy Coney Barrett was appointed by President Donald Trump, resulting in a 6-3 conservative majority more sympathetic to religious claims.

    While the court rejected several cases seeking a review of the 1977 ruling after Barrett’s appointment, it ruled in favor of religious claims in other cases, including one involving a public high school football coach who alleged job loss after leading prayers on the field.