People For the American Way

Supreme Court Issues Useful Ruling on Religious Accommodations to Workers Under Federal Law

News and Analysis

In a unanimous decision issued on the same day as its controversial affirmative action ruling, the Supreme Court helpfully clarified the religious accommodations owed to workers under federal law. The Court avoided catering to far right religious demands, as it has in other cases, but provided useful guidance on how to interpret federal law requiring that employers seek to accommodate workers’ religious practices, ranging from wearing a head covering to not working on their Sabbath or holy days. The case is Groff v DeJoy.  


What is the Background of the Case

 As part of its effort to end discrimination in the workplace, Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act requires that employers must “reasonably accommodate” a worker’s “religious observance or practice” on the job unless doing so would create “undue hardship.” In 1977, in a case called TWA v Hardison, the Supreme Court majority ruled that such undue hardship would be caused by the accommodation requested by an employee, and suggested that such a hardship would be created by any proposed accommodation that would require an employer to “bear more than a de minimis cost.” 

 This apparent standard drew severe criticism across the political and ideological spectrum, including from representatives of minority religions. In fact, Justices William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall strongly dissented on that point. Advocates on both the right and the left supported efforts in Congress over the years to clarify the standard and effectively overrule the “de minimis” test. As diverse religious groups explained to the Court, the Hardison language has been used by many lower courts over the years to deny employees “even minor” religious accommodations.  

 Gerald Groff, a part-time postal worker, sued the US Postal Service for refusing to accommodate his evangelical religious views that require him not to work shifts on Sunday. Based on Hardison, the lower courts ruled for USPS, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. 


What did the Court decide and why is it important?  

 In a unanimous opinion written by Justice Alito, the Court vacated the lower court rulings and sent the case back for reconsideration. It made clear that the  “de minimis” language should not be interpreted as many lower courts have, and that to comply with Title VII, an employer should grant an accommodation unless it would result in “substantial increased costs” in its business or other undue hardship.  

 In a concurring opinion, Justices Sotomayor and Jackson explained that while correcting the interpretation of Hardison’s “loose language,” the Court had not endorsed some of the more far-reaching action that Groff had requested. The Court declined to overrule Hardison or to create a “significant difficulty or expense” standard. The Court’s ruling also recognizes, Sotomayor explained, that undue hardship “may include” such hardship to other employees, who could be required to work longer or inconvenient hours because of a religious employee’s accommodation demands.  

 Reaction to the Court’s decision has already been positive from diverse religious groups, including from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and Islam RFI. Hopefully this ruling will provide an example to all members of the Court about the importance of trying to achieve consensus on religious liberty issues.