By Khorri Atkinson
The US Supreme Court unanimously created a higher standard for employers to measure the burden a worker’s religious accommodation request would impose on its business.
The justices on Thursday declined a Christian former US Postal Service worker’s bid to completely undo the high court’s 1977 decision in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, which said employers only need to show that a requested religion-based accommodation under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act would impose a minimal, “undue” burden to be able to reject it.
Gerald Groff had objected to delivering packages for Amazon.com Inc. on Sundays and requested an accommodation allowing him to avoid working that day on religious grounds. A divided US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit panel relied on Hardison to affirm a lower court ruling in favor of the Postal Service.
Groff advocated for a standard more like that of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which also requires accommodations for workers’ disabilities unless doing so presents an “undue hardship” on the employer. However, that law defines “undue hardship” as an “action requiring significant difficulty or expense” and provides factors for courts to consider in making that determination.
But the high court left Hardison intact and instead ruled that Title VII requires an employer denying a religious accommodation to show that the burden of granting it “would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.”
Hardison was intended to require businesses to show a “substantial” burden when declining a religious accommodation, but lower courts have “latched” on to the minimal language as the governing standard, Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the court.
“Hardison can not be reduced to that one phrase. In describing an employer’s ‘undue hardship’ defense, Hardison referred repeatedly to “substantial” burdens, and that formulation better explains the decision. We therefore, like the parties, understand Hardison to mean that ‘undue hardship’ is shown when a burden is substantial in the overall context,” Alito said.
“The Third Circuit assumed that Hardison prescribed a ‘more than a de minimis cost’ test, and this may have led the court to dismiss a number of possible accommodations, including those involving the cost of incentive pay, or the administrative costs of coordination with other nearby stations with a broader set of employees,” Alito added.
The justices vacated the holding below in favor of USPS, saying they “think its 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.”
The Supreme Court agreed in January take up the case after repeatedly declining to revisit the religious accommodation standard in other instances. The court’s prior resistance drew rebuke from Alito and Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, who had publicly advocated overturning Hardison amid concerns that the decision unfairly limited workers’ religious rights.
The court’s conservative supermajority—combined with its greater tendency to credit allegations of religious liberty violations—led some legal observers to speculate that a more employee-friendly interpretation of the religious accommodation test was on the way.
In a concurring opinion, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson said the majority’s decision not to overrule Hardison and to replace it with a “significant difficulty or expense” standard “is a wise choice.”
“Groff’s case is based on statutory interpretation and it’s on Congress to codify the ADA’s undue hardship test into Title VII,” the justices said.
“The court’s respect for Congress’s decision not to intervene promotes the separation of powers by requiring interested parties to resort to the legislative rather than the judicial process to achieve their policy goals,” Sotomayor and Jackson said, echoing assertions they made at oral arguments in April. “This justification for statutory stare decisis is especially strong here because Congress has spurned multiple opportunities” to revise to statute in relation to the religious accommodation test.
Thursday’s decision is seen as a victory for believers of minority faiths like Jews, Muslims, and Sikhs, whose accommodation requests are more likely to face headwinds because their worship, grooming, and dress requirements aren’t always the norm and may conflict with corporate policies.
Several diverse religious groups told the high court in amicus briefs that because the Hardison standard was so lax, an employer’s small cost or minor inconvenience could override even small accommodation requests, making it harder for members of minority faiths to enter the job market.
Rachel Laser, president and CEO of the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said in a statement Thursday that religious accommodations “that don’t burden or harm others, like wearing a hijab or having a beard, or praying privately, are exactly what the law was designed to permit.”
“We argued that whatever standard the court adopted for workers seeking religious accommodations, the only way to ensure equality was to ensure that workers obeying the rules of their own religion do not harm others,” she said. “If anything else were true, one religion would be superior to others. The court’s ‘clarified’ standard correctly allows employers to continue to consider the burdens an employee’s requested accommodation could impose on co-workers.”
Representatives for the parties didn’t immediately reply to requests for comment.
The case is Groff v. DeJoy, U.S., No. 22-174, 6/29/23.
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