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Supreme Court Issues Decision In Religious Freedom Case

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OPINION: This article may contain commentary which reflects the author's opinion.


In a landmark decision pertaining to religious liberty and the propriety of employers accommodating employees’ choices for religion at work, the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously in support of a Pennsylvania postal worker.

Pennsylvanian Christian mailman Gerald Groff asked the court to rule on whether the USPS could force him to deliver packages from Amazon on Sundays, which he observes as the Sabbath. April saw his attorney, Aaron Streett, argue that the court ought to reexamine a ruling from fifty years prior that established a benchmark for determining when employers must accommodate the religious practices of their employees.

The Supreme Court, in a 9-0 ruling, overruled a 1977 decision that required employers to “reasonably accommodate” a worker’s religious practices, provided that doing so does not place a “undue hardship” on the business.

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Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers to accommodate employees’ religious practices unless doing so would be an “undue hardship” for the business. A 1977 Supreme Court case, Trans World Airlines v. Hardison, said employers could deny religious accommodations to employees when they impose “more than a de minimis cost” on the business.

Streett said the court should get rid of the “de minimus” test because lower courts have used it wrongly to deny religious accommodations. Instead, he said, the court should use the plain language of Title VII, which would define “undue burden” the same way it is in other federal laws, like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The Biden administration informed the Supreme Court that the Hardison ruling does not need to be overturned for the Postal Service. They stated that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which enforces Title VII, and several lower courts have already interpreted the ruling as a significant protection for religious employees.

“The government believes undue hardship arises whenever there is lost efficiency, weekly payment of premium wages, or denial of a coworker’s shift preference,” Streett told the justices during oral arguments. “Thus, under the government’s test, a diabetic employee could receive snack breaks under the ADA but not prayer breaks under Title VII, for that might cause lost efficiency.”

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Back in April, postal worker unions asked that the Supreme Court contemplate the potential adversity that religious accommodations for some employees may have on their co-workers.

“A day off is not the special privilege of the religious. Days off, especially on the weekend, are when parents can spend the day with children who are otherwise in school when people can spend time on the other necessities of life, and when the community enjoys a common day of rest for churchgoers and the nonreligious alike,” the American Postal Workers Union noted in a brief to the court.

Title VII is a federal law that requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for an employee’s religious practices, unless it causes an undue hardship for the company. The Supreme Court established in the 1977 case of Trans World Airlines v. Hardison that an undue hardship is any burden that goes beyond a minor or de minimis cost on the employer.

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Recently, Groff’s legal team has requested the Supreme Court to review and overturn the Hardison precedent. They argue that companies should be required to show “significant difficulty or expense” before refusing to grant an accommodation.

According to Reuters, groups representing minority religions in the United States, such as Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism, have informed the Supreme Court that the current Hardison standard has unfairly impacted them. As a result, they are requesting that the standard be revised.

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