U.S. Supreme Court Backs Religious Employees Seeking Accommodations at Work

USPS truck (123rf)

(Reuters/Hamodia) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday bolstered the ability of employees to obtain accommodations at work for their religious practices, reviving a lawsuit by a Christian former mail carrier accusing the Postal Service of discrimination after being disciplined for refusing to show up for work on Sundays.

The 9-0 ruling threw out a lower court’s decision rejecting a claim made by Gerald Groff, a former mail carrier in Pennsylvania, that the Postal Service’s actions refusing to exempt him from working on Sundays, when he observes the Christian Sabbath, violated federal anti-discrimination law.

The Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had found that Groff’s absences placed too much of a hardship on his co-workers and employer. The Supreme Court ordered the 3rd Circuit to reconsider the matter.

The Supreme Court, with its 6-3 conservative majority, has a track record of expanding religious rights, often siding with religious plaintiffs.

Groff’s case centered on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on religion and other factors including race, gender and national origin.

Under Title VII, employers must make allowances for a worker’s religious observance or practices unless that would cause the business “undue hardship” – which the Supreme Court in a 1977 case called Trans World Airlines v. Hardison determined to be anything imposing more than a minor, or “de minimis,” cost.

Groff’s attorneys had asked the Supreme Court to overturn the Hardison precedent and require companies to show a “significant difficulty or expense” before denying an accommodation.

Groff worked as a “rural carrier associate” in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County, a job that required him to fill in as needed for absent career carriers, including on weekends.

The Postal Service in 2013, in a bid to remain profitable, contracted with Amazon to deliver packages, including on Sundays.

Groff failed to report for assigned Sunday shifts. Postal Service officials sought to accommodate Groff by attempting to facilitate shift swaps, but were not always successful. His absences caused tension among other carriers who had to cover his shifts, the Postal Service said. Groff received several disciplinary letters and resigned in 2019.

The 3rd Circuit last year rejected his claims, finding that exempting Groff caused “undue hardship” because it strained co-workers and disrupted workflow.

Groups representing other religions in the United States had backed Groff in the case, saying they are disproportionately denied religious accommodations, forcing them to choose between their religion and their jobs.

The Orthodox Union, a large organization representing Orthodox Jews, filed an amicus brief in support of Groff.

“For decades, ever since the Supreme Court issued its terrible ruling in the Hardison case, the Orthodox Union advocated for that ruling to be reversed or revised, Nathan Diament, a co-author of the brief and the Orthodox Union’s Executive Director for Public Policy said in a statement. “Forcing American Jews (or Americans of any faith) to choose between their career and their conscience is fundamentally at odds with the principle of religious freedom that is the foundation of the United States and our Constitution. We regret that it has taken so long, but we are grateful that the Supreme Court has finally righted the wrong of Hardison and has reinstated the full right of religious accommodation in the workplace.”

Unions representing postal workers had urged the justices to consider the hardship that religious accommodations have on co-workers who, for example, lose out on a day to rest or spend with family when they have to cover for shift gaps that arise due to requests not to work by religious employees.

In another case, the court last year ruled that a Washington state public school district violated the rights of a Christian high school football coach who was suspended for refusing to stop leading prayers with players on the field after games.

In other rulings in recent years, the court has broken down barriers for public money to go to religious schools and institutions and has made other decisions in favor of religious liberty advocates.

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