Supreme Court hears oral arguments on religious accommodations

Written by William C. Duncan

April 19, 2023

How much effort should an employer have to make to accommodate the religious practices of an employee? Should they be able to say “no” to religious accommodations that require anything more than a minimal effort, or should they only be able to deny a religious accommodation when the effort required is significant? On Tuesday, April 18, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case raising these precise questions.

The case involves Gerald Groff, a former postal service employee who is a devout Christian. For a few years, Groff experienced no conflict between his work and faith obligations. In 2013, however, the postal service contracted to deliver packages for Amazon, which required them to begin making Sunday deliveries.

Groff managed to avoid Sunday work until 2019, but his supervisor eventually required him to either work Sundays or resign. Citing his faith, he resigned.

The federal law that governs employment discrimination claims, Title VII, provides that employers must accommodate “all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief, unless an employer demonstrates that he is unable to reasonably accommodate to an employee’s or prospective employee’s religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.”

In 1977, however, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision interpreting this requirement to mean that whenever an employee’s requested accommodation requires an employer to make anything more than a “de minimis” (trivial) effort to accommodate, the employer can refuse to make the accommodation.

Thus, as submissions to the court in this case describe, religious minorities like Seventh-day Adventists and Orthodox Jews have been fired by their employers for asking for accommodations for Sabbath observance.

In this case, Groff is asking the court to reverse that earlier decision and adopt an interpretation of what constitutes an “undue hardship” more in line with that used for other groups protected by federal employment discrimination laws.

The U.S. Department of Justice has argued that the prior ruling should remain untouched, based on a legal principle that a prior ruling on a case should not be disturbed except in rare circumstances. The problem with the precedent argument is that a mistaken interpretation of a statute cannot trump the actual language of the law. If that were allowed, Congress’ constitutional lawmaking authority could easily be set aside by mistaken judicial interpretations followed by arguments that such mistakes cannot be rectified “except in rare circumstances.”

Others have argued that requiring employers to make a greater effort to accommodate religious requests might be too burdensome to employers or create difficulties for other employees (who might be asked to work Sundays, for instance, when another employee cannot).

The problem with this objection is that employers already make greater efforts to accommodate other groups protected by federal law, without it proving too burdensome. As the briefing in this case makes clear, the accommodation standard being requested by the former postal worker is the current rule for employers asked to accommodate pregnant or disabled employees. If it is workable for pregnancy and disability, it should be workable for accommodating religion as well. If we allow different legal standards in employee accommodations, on the other hand, then we’ve created a situation in which designed to establish equal protection from discrimination is enshrining unequal protection across protected groups due to how it is implemented.

As the courts might interpret the language of Title VII, the law could allow employers to refuse accommodations either (1) when doing so creates a significant burden on the employer (the standard for pregnancy and disability) or (2) anytime, as long as the accommodation requires non-trivial effort (the standard for religion). These alternatives seem to be mutually exclusive.

It appears from questions asked in oral argument that a number of justices recognize that the first alternative is more faithful to the language of the law.

Even when we do not understand, agree with, or appreciate the religious beliefs or practices of others, we can recognize that giving them space to act on their core beliefs has the effect of securing space for us to act on ours. Congress recognized that racial minorities, people of faith, and women have been subjected to unfair requirements as a condition of employment in the past. Its good-faith effort to end these practices should be faithfully implemented in the law – even if that means rising above an entrenched, yet misguided, legal interpretation from the past.

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