APU Business Legal Studies Original

Religious Accommodations in the Workplace: Is Change Coming?

On April 18, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that has the potential to expand a decades-old position of the Court concerning religious accommodations that employers need to offer their employees. This case, Groff v. DeJoy, has become a lightning rod, attracting attention from religious groups and proponents of the strict separation of church and state.

Why Employers Are Required by Law to Offer Accommodations to Employees

There are several employment laws mandating employers to accommodate employees with specific and unique needs. For example, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to accommodate employees with disabilities as long as these accommodations do not constitute undue hardship.

For religious accommodations, the Supreme Court’s position is based on a 1977 case, Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison. In this case, Larry Hardison, a Trans World Airlines (TWA) mechanic, did not want to work on Saturdays (his Sabbath) for religious reasons.

However, TWA refused to accommodate him. According to the collective bargaining agreement his union had with TWA, a choice of shifts was a right based on the union’s seniority system, and Hardison lacked the appropriate seniority.

As a result, he was ordered to work on Saturdays. When Hardison refused, he was fired and later sued TWA. The case eventually came to the U.S. Supreme Court.

When the case went to the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court ultimately sided with TWA, noting that the airline had made reasonable accommodations for Hardison in its attempt to find a solution. According to the majority opinion, “To require TWA to bear more than a de minimis cost in order to give Hardison Saturdays off is an undue hardship. Like abandonment of the seniority system, to require TWA to bear additional costs when no such costs are incurred to give other employees the days off that they want would involve unequal treatment of employees on the basis of their religion.

“By suggesting that TWA should incur certain costs in order to give Hardison Saturdays off the Court of Appeals would in effect require TWA to finance an additional Saturday off and then to choose the employee who will enjoy it on the basis of his religious beliefs. While incurring extra costs to secure a replacement for Hardison might remove the necessity of compelling another employee to work involuntarily in Hardison’s place, it would not change the fact that the privilege of having Saturdays off would be allocated according to religious beliefs.” 

Because the Supreme Court stated in the Hardison case that employers should not have to bear more than a de minimis (trifling) cost when it comes to making accommodations for employees, employers have been able to claim that making reasonable accommodations will have a significant impact on them. For instance, an organization could refuse to accommodate an employee’s request because it would affect employee morale or company finances.

However, the case of Groff v. DeJoy could now change the de mimimis standard used to judge accommodations in the workplace.

Related link: It Is Time We Permitted Cameras into the Supreme Court

The Background behind the Groff v. DeJoy Religious Accommodations Case

Gerald Groff was a United States Postal Service (USPS) employee in Pennsylvania. He belonged to a group of workers who were not union members and did not have the ability to choose their work shifts. 

Initially, USPS allowed Groff to avoid working on Sunday to accommodate his religious preferences. But the situation changed after the USPS signed an agreement with Amazon.

In 2015, USPS employees at Groff’s post office began delivering Amazon packages on various days of the week, including Sundays. However, there was a severe shortage of postal workers, so even Groff’s local postmaster would help to deliver packages on Sundays.

Later, the postmaster informed Groff that due to the USPS employee shortage, the USPS could no longer accommodate Groff’s preference of not working on Sundays. It had become simply too burdensome, since other workers had to pick up more weekend shifts to cover him.  

In 2019, Groff resigned and sued the USPS. The case traveled though different courts and is now being heard by the Supreme Court. There have been dozens of amicus briefs filed, both to support Groff and to oppose him. 

Many religious organizations have filed amicus briefs in support of increasing the protection of employees who want to follow their religious practices in the workplace. For example, the  Muslim Public Affairs Council noted in its amicus brief,  “Hardison’s de minimis standard finds support in neither the text of Title VII nor the principles which animate it. Nor does it track the historical importance of religious pluralism in the American tradition. The Founders believed that a “just government” must be “supported by protecting every Citizen in the enjoyment of his Religion with the same equal hand that protects his person and his property; by neither invading the equal rights of any Sect nor suffering any Sect to invade those of another….By allowing employers to shirk their obligations under Title VII, Hardison diminishes a crucial aspect of American pluralism. Practically speaking, this judicial error harms some of the most vulnerable in society.”

The opposition to the Groff case is concerned that expanding religious accommodations will bring a flood of litigation and increase the role of religion in the workplace. Ian Millhiser of Vox notes that Groff’s opponents are highly critical of the possibility that religious accommodations will be put in the same category as accommodations for employees with disabilities.

As Millhiser says, “Groff, in other words, could do more than just rework the rules governing religious accommodations in the workplace. It could potentially also rework the rules governing when the Supreme Court is allowed to abandon its longstanding interpretation of a federal statute, and to impose a new rule preferred by the Court’s current members. And, in a Court like the current one, which is so eager to move fast and break things, that means that a whole lot could change very fast.”

Related link: The Supreme Court and Religious Expression in Public Schools

The Supreme Court’s Decision in Groff v. DeJoy Could Change How Businesses Handle Religious Accommodations

The decision of the Supreme Court has the potential to significantly change the way corporate America deals with religious accommodations for employees. It remains to be seen to what extent is the Supreme Court willing to venture into that space.

Hearing the oral arguments in this case, a listener could get the impression that the Justices are not so enthusiastic to change the decades-old Hardison decision. But when it comes to this Supreme Court, it is hard to know if the Justices will not take this opportunity to chart a new course in First Amendment jurisprudence. 

Ilan Fuchs

Dr. Ilan Fuchs is a scholar of international law and legal history. He holds a B.A. in Humanities and Social Science from The Open University of Israel and an M.A. in Jewish history from Bar-Ilan University. Ilan’s other degrees include an LL.B., an LL.M. and a Ph.D. in Law from Bar-Ilan University. He is the author of “Jewish Women’s Torah Study: Orthodox Education and Modernity,” and 18 articles in leading scholarly journals. At the University, Ilan teaches courses on international law while maintaining a law practice in several jurisdictions.

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