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Postal Worker’s Fight for Religious Freedom Sparks Supreme Court Showdown

By Jake Beardslee · June 29, 2023

In brief…

  • The Supreme Court has issued a ruling on religious accommodations in the workplace, setting a new standard for employers.
  • The case involved a postal worker, Gerald Groff, who resigned after being forced to work on Sundays, conflicting with his religious need to attend church.
  • Previously, employers could deny accommodations based on minimal costs (de minimis), but the court now requires employers to prove a substantial burden in providing an accommodation.
Supreme Court of the U.S. Building  Marielam1/CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In a significant ruling with far-reaching implications for workplaces across America, the Supreme Court has redefined the burden of proof for employers denying religious accommodations. The decision, which stemmed from a case involving a postal worker’s religious need to attend church on Sundays, requires employers to demonstrate that providing an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs.

The Supreme Court case in question centered around Gerald Groff, a postal worker who was asked to work on Sundays to deliver Amazon packages, conflicting with his Sabbath observance. Despite his initial expectation that the Postal Service would find a way to accommodate him, Groff was eventually left with no choice but to resign. Reflecting on the significance of his case, Groff stated in an interview with Devin Dwyer on ABC News, “It’s the Lord’s day. It’s not the Lord’s Morning. It’s not supposed to be like the other six days of the week.”

Under federal civil rights law, employers are obligated to provide religious accommodations unless it imposes an undue burden on their business operations. However, the definition of “undue hardship” has been a subject of debate. Previously, courts relied on the concept of de minimis, which allowed employers to deny accommodations based on minimal costs. The Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling today raises the bar, stating that employers must prove a substantial burden, not merely minimal costs.

The decision aligns the case law with the actual language of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which defines undue hardship. This ruling signifies a departure from the court’s previous stance and sets a new precedent for employers in accommodating religious practices. While the ruling offers hope to individuals seeking religious observance in the workplace, it places a greater burden on employers to accommodate such requests. Employers will need to reassess their policies and practices to ensure compliance with the updated standard set by the court.

The Supreme Court’s ruling on religious accommodations marks a significant shift in the burden of proof required of employers. By raising the bar from de minimis to substantial burden, the court has placed a greater responsibility on employers to accommodate their employees’ religious observances. While this decision is a victory for those seeking religious freedom in the workplace, it also presents new challenges for employers who must now navigate a higher threshold for denying accommodations. Striking a balance between religious observance and business operations continues to be a delicate task, and this ruling serves as a reminder of the ongoing importance of addressing the complexities surrounding religious accommodations in the modern workplace.