Supreme Court Unanimously Rules for Christian Postal Worker
In 9-0 decision released Thursday, the Supreme Court rejected a judgment by the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit against Christian postal worker Gerald Groff, who refused to work on Sundays for religious reasons.
In an opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, the court ruled in Groff v. DeJoy that “an employer must show that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.” First Liberty Institute, which represented Groff, stated that “the decision strengthens protections for employees seeking religious accommodations and impacts every workplace with at least 15 employees in every state.”
When Groff began working as a rural carrier associate for the U.S. Postal Service in 2012, USPS did not distribute mail on Sundays. However, in 2013, USPS signed an agreement to deliver Amazon packages on Sunday, and in 2016 it came to an agreement with the postal worker union about how that work would be distributed. At first, Groff requested a transfer to a more rural post office to avoid making Sunday deliveries, but when that office also began Sunday deliveries, he sought an accommodation. He was frequently successful in switching shifts with coworkers, but whenever he could not obtain a substitute, he faced “progressive discipline” for failing to report for work on Sundays. In 2019, Groff resigned.
Groff sued under Title VII, “asserting that USPS could have accommodated his Sunday Sabbath practice ‘without undue hardship on the conduct of [USPS’s] business.’” However, he lost at the district and circuit court levels due to their reliance on a standard known as “de minimis.”
The case largely concerned the proper interpretation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which “requires employers to accommodate the religious practice of their employees unless doing so would impose an ‘undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business,’” as the court explained.
The widely recognized precedent for defining “undue hardship” came from a 1977 case, Trans World Airlines v. Hardison, in which the Supreme Court had stated that, “to require TWA to bear more than a de minimis cost in order to give Hardison Saturdays off is an undue hardship.” The Latin term “de minimis” is jargon for something too trivial or minimal to merit consideration. Both parties to the case agreed that the “de minimis” test was not the proper standard.
On “Washington Watch” Thursday, Geoff’s co-counsel, Randell Wenger, called it “a landmark decision,” since the TWA v. Hardison case really obliterated any protections that Congress had envisioned 50 years ago. “It basically said … the employer didn’t need to do anything for the employee. And that was essentially telling all religious workers in America ‘Go pound sand.’ And thankfully, this Supreme Court really got it right today and has restored the original meaning back into the Civil Rights Act so that religious workers in the workplace are finally protected.”
In “our first opportunity in nearly 50 years to explain the contours of Hardison,” the court swept aside the de minimis standard, holding that “showing ‘more than a de minimis cost,’ as that phrase is used in common parlance, does not suffice to establish ‘undue hardship’ under Title VII.” Rather than overturn Hardison, the court said that “Hardison cannot be reduced to that one phrase,” even though that is the phrase lower courts have employed for decades. Instead, said the court, “Hardison referred repeatedly to ‘substantial’ burdens, and that formulation better explains the decision.”
“We therefore, like the parties, understand Hardison to mean that ‘undue hardship’ is shown when a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business,” concluded the court. “This fact-specific inquiry comports with both Hardison and the meaning of ‘undue hardship’ in ordinary speech.”
“What is most important,” the court added, “is that ‘undue hardship’ in Title VII means what it says, and courts should resolve whether a hardship would be substantial in the context of an employer’s business in the commonsense manner that it would use in applying any such test.”
In a brief concurrence, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, emphasized that the court held Title VII to require “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business,” not “undue hardship
to [its] business,” which they noted could mean hardship on other employees. The also wrote that “stare decisis [the legal principle of deferring to precedent] has ‘enhanced force’ in statutory cases.”
Having clarified the interpretation of “undue hardship” in Title VII, the Supreme Court vacated the Third Circuit’s opinion and remanded the case back to their jurisdiction. “Without foreclosing the possibility that USPS will prevail, we think it appropriate to leave it to the lower courts to apply our clarified context-specific standard, and to decide whether any further factual development is needed,” the court noted.
As Wenger pointed out, “We’re in an era right now of growing secularism where people don’t understand the religious obligations [that] religious people have in the workplace. And so employers are asking for more and more, not really understanding the impossibility that creates for a religious employee like Gerald, [for whom] this isn’t just an issue of, ‘Hey, I’ve got a preference to not work on Sunday.’ It’s ‘I can’t work here unless you make a way for me to do this because I’ve got a religious conviction.’ And so the standard is going to make it a whole lot easier for employees to follow their convictions and not have to give up their jobs.”
Groff, meanwhile, couldn’t be happier. “This is a great moment for America, for religious freedom. I’m just overjoyed [to] be a part of this moment. And just to rejoice that no one else should have to go through what I have … now that the court has spoken.”
Joshua Arnold is a staff writer at The Washington Stand.