News Articles

High court to rule on religious freedom in workplace


WASHINGTON (BP) – The U.S. Supreme Court is preparing to decide whether it should bolster workplace accommodations for the free exercise of religion.

The justices will hear oral arguments April 18 regarding a U.S. Postal Service (USPS) employee’s contention his belief in observing Sunday as the Sabbath was not properly accommodated. In the case, the high court will contemplate whether to alter its interpretation in a 1977 decision regarding the standard for accommodating workers’ religious exercise.

The Supreme Court is expected to issue an opinion in the case, Groff v. DeJoy, before it adjourns for the term this summer.

The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) joined other organizations in a friend-of-the-court brief that urged the justices to correct the 1977 ruling. That opinion has resulted in discrimination against employees who seek to practice their faith, according to the brief.

“As Southern Baptists, we believe that our vocation cannot be separated from our faith,” said Hannah Daniel, the ERLC’s policy manager. “As Colossians 3 commands us, we are to work with all our heart as unto the Lord. Religious accommodations play a vital role in allowing employees to work without being forced to violate their deeply held beliefs.

“The ERLC is urging the court to strengthen those accommodations by requiring employers to meet a higher burden before denying vital religious accommodations to their employees,” she told Baptist Press in written comments.

Gerald Groff is an evangelical Christian who believes Sunday is the Sabbath and should be observed by rest and worship. He was able to practice his sabbatarian belief without a problem when he began working as a postal employee in Lancaster County, Pa., in 2012.

After the Postal Service began making Amazon deliveries on Sunday, he sought an accommodation for his religious belief. Though his request was initially granted, he ultimately was disciplined for failing to work on the Sundays he was scheduled. He resigned in 2019 and filed suit against the USPS, specifically Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, for religious discrimination.

Last year, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia upheld a federal judge’s ruling in favor of the USPS. A divided, three-judge panel of the Third Circuit ruled accommodating Groff’s religious exercise established an “undue hardship.” As a result, the USPS did not violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, according to the panel.

The Supreme Court will decide two questions offered in the appeal from the Third Circuit: (1) Should it reject the definition in its 1977 Trans World Airlines v. Hardison opinion that an employer suffers an “undue hardship” regarding religious accommodation when the price to do so is more than “de minimis” or minimal?; (2) Should the burden on other employees by accommodating a worker’s religious practice be considered an “undue hardship” on the employer’s business?

In their brief, the ERLC and the other groups called for the Supreme Court to overturn its 1977 Hardison decision because that ruling misinterpreted Title VII’s “undue hardship” exception. That exemption in Title VII should be defined in the same way as the one found in another civil rights law, they said.

That law – the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) – defines “undue hardship” as “an action requiring significant difficulty or expense.” The ADA standard provides a reasonable balance between the interests of employers and workers, according to the brief.

The “de minimis” test in Hardison “has injured religious Americans for more than four decades,” the brief said. Reports from federal and state courts show that standard “has put honest men and women in the intolerable position of choosing between their jobs and their faith,” according to the brief.

Joining the ERLC in the brief led by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were the National Association of Evangelicals, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and the Anti-defamation League.

In their brief, the organizations also rejected the Third Circuit’s ruling that “undue hardship” encompasses its effect on other workers, such as a greater workload and lower morale.

Title VII’s language requires an employer to “reasonably accommodate” a worker’s religion when possible “without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” That language “leaves no doubt that what matters is how an accommodation affects ‘the conduct of the employer’s business’ – not only how it affects other employees,” the brief said.

“[D]enying a religious accommodation because of popular opposition is a dangerous principle that subverts the very purpose of a civil rights statute,” according to the brief. “The meaning of individual rights would shrivel if they depended on a show of hands.”