Later today, the United States Supreme Court is set to hear opening remarks in a former postal worker’s claim of religious discrimination against the U.S. Postal Service (the “USPS”) after he was repeatedly disciplined for refusing to work on Sundays. Once again, this Supreme Court is considering overturning decades of precedent. If successful, the ruling could make it harder for employers to deny a request for religious accommodation under a federal anti-discrimination law known as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (“Title VII”). The worker, Gerald Groff, is an evangelical Christian and the matter before the Court will have the Justices revisit a decades-old test for determining when and if an employer can deny a requested religious accommodation.
The standard which has been in place for over 40 years is based on the Court’s ruling in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison (“Hardison”). In Hardison, the Court found employers were permitted to deny a reasonable accommodation request for sincerely held religious beliefs under Title VII if the accommodation would result in an undue hardship for the employer.
The Supreme Court, as currently constituted, holds a 6-3 conservative majority. This Court has a reputation for expanding the conservative agenda, expanding religious rights, and siding with Christian plaintiffs. Groff’s case falls in line with this agenda and since conservatives have long sought to overturn the Hardison standard the stage could be set for a new standard to be established.
Background for the Case at Hand
Gerald Groff is an Evangelical Christian who devoutly observes the Sunday Sabbath. Groff began working for the USPS in 2012 at a local office in rural Pennsylvania. Three years later, his office began Sunday delivery for Amazon. At that time Groff requested and was granted an exemption from having to work on Sundays on religious grounds, but subsequently was told he would need to work Sundays like everyone else. As a result, Groff transferred to a different post office that did not deliver for Amazon on Sundays. However, shortly after joining the second office it too began to deliver for Amazon on Sundays. Groff once again told his bosses that because of his closely held religious beliefs he would not be able to work Sundays. To accommodate Groff, the second office began to cover his Sunday shifts with other team members.
Over the following years Groff’s bosses tried to accommodate him by facilitating shift swaps with his co-workers, however they were not always successful in finding Groff a replacement. When his Sunday shifts could not be reassigned, Groff would fail to report in to work. According to USPS this caused tension among other employees who had to cover for him. Groff received a series of disciplinary warnings before he ultimately resigned in 2019.
As his attorneys stated in the court filings, the ad hoc approach used by USPS failed to consistently accommodate Groff, As a result Groff received a series of disciplinary warnings which were just short of termination for his refusal to work on Sundays. Ultimately, when faced with termination, Groff resigned and sued USPS for failing to reasonably accommodate his religious belief.
Last year the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the USPS and rejected Groff’s claims. The Appeals Court ruled that removing Groff from the Sunday delivery schedule caused the USPS “undue hardship” as it created a strain on his co-workers and led to disrupted workflows.
At its core, Groff’s case centers around Title VII, which prohibits employment discrimination based on religion, among other factors. Under Title VII, an employer is required to make an accommodation for an employee’s religious observance as long as it does not cause the employer an “undue hardship.” Based on Hardison, anything imposing more than a minor or “de minimis” expense is an undue hardship.
Groff is looking to have Hardison overturned. In its place, he wants to require employers to show they would incur “significant difficulty or expense” before they can deny a religious accommodation.
Impact on Employers
As one can imagine, if the Hardison standard is replaced by a standard that would require employers to show “significant difficulty or expense” before they could deny a religious accommodation, it will create a significant burden and expense on impacted employers. We believe the stage is set for the highly conservative Supreme Court to move in this direction and employers should prepare for this outcome. If you currently have an employee who has been denied a religious accommodation, we encourage you to work with your employment law counsel on how to address their needs/requests in the event Hardison is overturned.
We will continue to follow this case and provide our readers with an update once a decision has been reached.
Brody and Associates regularly advises management on complying with the latest local, state and federal employment laws. If we can be of assistance in this area, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 203.454.0560