The U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling Thursday in favor of a Christian postal worker who says he was targeted and disciplined by his employer for refusing to work on Sundays because of his religious beliefs.
In its ruling in Groff v. DeJoy, written by Justice Samuel Alito, the court said federal law requires an employer that denies an employee a religious accommodation must show that the burden of the accommodation would result in substantial increased costs.
The court rejected the “de minimus” interpretation of the “Hardison Standard,” which has been used to deny employees’ religious accommodation requests if they present more than a “trivial cost” to the employer.
The Hardison Standard, established in the 1977 case TWA v. Hardison, interpreted Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to mean that employers were not obligated to accommodate workers’ religious requests if they posed more than a trivial cost. The court's decision Thursday overturns that interpretation.
“The erroneous de minimis interpretation of Hardison may have had the effect of leading courts to pay insufficient attention to what the actual text of Title VII means with regard to several recurring issues,” Alito wrote.
“What is most important is that ‘undue hardship’ in Title VII means what it says,” the decision’s syllabus said. “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.”
Though granting that “Title VII requires an assessment of a possible accommodation’s effect on ‘the conduct of the employer’s business,’” Alito wrote that “impacts on coworkers are relevant only to the extent those impacts go on to affect the conduct of the business.”
Alito clarified that bias or hostility towards religion cannot be considered a factor in determining whether to grant a religious accommodation request.
“A hardship that is attributable to employee animosity to a particular religion, to religion in general, or to the very notion of accommodating religious practice cannot be considered ‘undue,’” said Alito, “If bias or hostility to a religious practice or a religious accommodation provided a defense to a reasonable accommodation claim, Title VII would be at war with itself.”
Besides rejecting the de minimis interpretation, the Supreme Court returned Groff’s case to lower courts to be examined under the new standard.
“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,” Alito wrote.
A 'landmark' decision
At the heart of this case is Gerald Groff, a former postal worker who is also an evangelical missionary.
In 2019, Groff resigned from his position with the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) after years of allegedly being harassed, targeted, and disciplined for refusing to work Sundays so that he could abide by the Third Commandment, to “keep holy the sabbath day.”
Groff then sued the USPS for violating his religious rights.
After his claims were denied by both a Pennsylvania district court and the 3rd Circuit Court, the Supreme Court agreed to take up his appeal in January.
The court’s decision is expected to have a major impact on the religious rights of employees across the country.
According to the religious liberty law firm Becket, under the Hardison precedent, 86% of workplace religious accommodation requests are denied. “Hardison’s ‘de minimis test’ has been used by large companies to deny even the most basic of religious accommodations for their employees — especially employees with minority religious beliefs,” the law firm said.
The First Liberty Institute, a firm specializing in religious rights cases that represented Groff in this case, responded to the ruling by calling it a “landmark victory” for workers across the country.
“This is a landmark victory, not only for Gerald, but for every American. No American should be forced to choose between their faith and their job,” Kelly Shackelford, President of First Liberty Institute, wrote in a Thursday press release. “The Court’s decision today restores ... religious freedom to every American in the workplace. This decision will positively help millions and millions of Americans —those who work now and their children and grandchildren.”
According to the First Liberty Institute, the decision “strengthens legal protections for employees seeking religious accommodations” and will impact “every workplace with at least 15 employees in every state in the country.”
In a video statement by First Liberty Institute, Groff said he was honored to be part of the case expected to positively impact millions of Americans.
“It's an honor to have my name on it, but really it's about glorifying God and giving him what he’s due,” Groff said. “It's not really about me.”
Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson issued a separate concurring opinion.
In her concurrence, Sotomayor clarifies that though the court has rejected the de minimis standard, it has not replaced it with a “significant difficulty or expense” standard as Groff had requested. Instead, the court has simply overruled the trivial cost standard to return the law to the original “undue burden” text of Title VII.