WASHINGTON – A unanimous Supreme Court just dramatically strengthened protections for religious employees. In Groff v. DeJoy, a U.S. Postal Service carrier named Gerald Groff was forced to leave his job after the USPS denied him a religious accommodation to observe his Sunday Sabbath. Today, the Court called the standard applied to Groff’s case—a standard developed from its own prior rulings—“erroneous” and imposed a stronger test to ensure that religious Americans won’t have to leave their faith at home when they go to work.
In Trans World Airlines v. Hardison, the Supreme Court had said employers were not obligated to provide religious accommodations to employees if those accommodations resulted in a “de minimis,” or minor cost to the employer. The Hardison standard was particularly problematic for workers who are members of minority faiths or have unpopular beliefs, placing additional hardships on marginalized communities. This includes the ability of Jewish employees to wear yarmulkes in the workplace or Muslim employees to pray during the workday.
“Big corporations got away with firing employees for their religious practices for decades, thanks to a fundamental misreading of civil rights law,” said Mark Rienzi, president and CEO of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “That mistake by the Court long pushed faith out of daily life by giving employers free rein to give religious workers the boot for observing holy days and taking time to pray. Today’s ruling corrects decades of rulings against religious Americans.”
In its opinion today, the Court fixed its mistake in Hardison, ruling that employers must show much more than a “de minimis” burden to demonstrate an “undue hardship.” The Justices explained that there is a “big difference” between its interpretation here and the old “de minimis” standard. Now, employers can only deny religious accommodations if they can prove that a burden is so big as to be “substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business.” That must be “more severe” than a mere burden and “have to rise to the level of hardship” that is “excessive” or “unjustifiable.”
Becket has represented multiple religious workers left to the whims of billion-dollar businesses that either did not understand or care about their religious convictions. In fact, the Court cited several of Becket’s earlier cases, including Patterson v. Walgreen Co., Tagore v. United States, and EEOC v. Walmart Stores.
“Today was a win for the little guy—all those who want to live and work in accordance with their religious beliefs,” said Rienzi. “The Supreme Court has made it so hardworking religious Americans no longer have to choose between their job and their faith.”
Groff is represented by Aaron Streett of Baker Botts L.L.P. and First Liberty Institute.