U.S. Supreme Court

Postal worker who quit over Sunday hours gets new chance for religious-bias claim, thanks to Supreme Court

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The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in the case of Pennsylvania postal worker Gerald E. Groff, who quit his job after he was disciplined for refusing to work on Sundays for religious reasons. Image from Shutterstock.

Workers seeking a religious accommodation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act may have an easier time in the courts as a result of a decision Thursday by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court clarified the standard to be used in such cases in a lawsuit by Pennsylvania postal worker Gerald E. Groff. He had quit his job after he was disciplined for refusing to work on Sundays for religious reasons.

The unanimous Supreme Court said an employer may deny a religious accommodation if the burden of granting it would result in substantial increased costs in the conduct of its business.

Courts applying the test should take into account all relevant factors, including the particular accommodations at issue and the practical impact in light of the nature, size and operating cost of the employer, the Supreme Court said in an opinion by Justice Samuel Alito.

Groff’s case will be remanded for consideration under the court’s clarified standard.

Lawyers for Groff had argued that a previous test often used in Title VII religious accommodation cases has, in practice, resulted in rulings for employers virtually every time that an accommodation would impose any burden on the employer.

Title VII says employers can’t discriminate against an employee or prospective employee because of religion—unless the employer demonstrates that it is unable to reasonably accommodate that person’s religious observance or practice “without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.”

But many courts “latched on” to a test for undue hardship that was discussed in the 1977 Supreme Court decision Trans World Airlines Inc. v. Hardison, the Supreme Court said. Under that decision, an employer suffers an “undue hardship” if the accommodation would impose “more than a de minimis cost.”

Groff and the U.S. solicitor general agreed that the de minimis reading of Hardison was wrong. The Supreme Court also agreed.

“We hold that showing ‘more than a de minimis cost,’ as that phrase is used in common parlance, does not suffice to establish ‘undue hardship’ ” under Title VII,” Alito wrote.

The case is Groff v. DeJoy.

See also:

ABAJournal.com: Supreme Court considers how far employers should go for religious accommodation

ABAJournal.com: “Chemerinsky: Oral arguments conclude with important free speech, civil rights cases”

ABAJournal.com: “Chemerinsky: Expect momentous decisions from the Supreme Court as term ends”

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