The Supreme Court has granted certiorari in a potentially major case on the free exercise of religion. Groff v. DeJoy involves evangelical Christian postal worker, Gerald Groff, who alleges that the the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) forced him out of his job when he refused to work on Sundays due to his faith. The case could either overturn or reaffirm the earlier ruling in TWA v. Hardison, which stated that employers need not offer religious accommodation if doing so would cause an “undue hardship” to the business.
Groff is an evangelical Christian and Sunday Sabbath observer, who worked for the USPS since 2012. Postal workers must take Sunday shifts due to weekend deliveries — an obligation accepted under their collective-bargaining agreement. The conflict grew in 2013 when USPS signed an agreement with Amazon in 2013 to deliver packages on Sundays and holidays.
Groff was allowed to work around the conflict by taking extra shifts during the week and finding substitutes for his Sunday shifts. He also arranged to be transferred to another post office without Sunday deliveries, but later that post office also began Sunday deliveries.
The conflicts came to a head by Groff when he could not find substitutes and missed Sunday work days as the workload increased at the post office. He was given repeated disciplinary actions for refusing to work. The USPS was moving to terminate him when he resigned and filed a challenge based on two causes of action for religious discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: (1) disparate treatment, and (2) failure to accommodate religious beliefs.
The trial court and Third Circuit ruled for the Postal Service under Hardison. The Third Circuit reasoned that accommodating such demands imposed a more than de minimis cost under Hardison and thus was not required under the Constitution.
“Groff’s proposed accommodation of being exempted from Sunday work would cause an undue hardship. Exempting Groff from working on Sundays caused more than a de minimis cost on USPS because it actually imposed on his coworkers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale at both the Holtwood Post Office and the Lancaster Annex hub. …Because Groff would not work on Sundays, only three individuals remained who could work on Sundays during the peak season. After the one RCA who covered for Groff was injured, only the Holtwood Postmaster and the remaining RCA were available to work the Sunday shift. This placed a great strain on the Holtwood Post Office personnel and even resulted in the Postmaster delivering mail on some Sundays…
At the hub, Groff’s absences also had an impact on operations and morale. The hub supervisor testified that Groff’s absence made timely delivery more difficult, and carriers had to deliver more mail. As at the Holtwood Post Office, Groff’s absence also had a negative impact on morale among the RCAs at the hub and resulted in a Union grievance being filed. According to management, allowing Groff to swap shifts was the only accommodation that would not impact operations and exempting him from the rotation would result in other employees “do[ing] more than their share of burdensome work.” JA218; see also JA468, 492, 599. Thus, Groff’s absences caused, and exempting Groff from Sunday work would continue to cause, an undue hardship.”
In his petition, Groff is now seeking to have the Hardison test rejected by the Court.
“[A] half-century ago, a Title VII amendment mandated that employers must reasonably accommodate employees’ religious practices unless doing so would inflict an “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(j). But just a handful of years later, this Court gutted those vital protections in dicta utterly divorced from the statutory text, declaring that employers could deny religious accommodations that impose “more than a de minimis cost.” Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63, 84 (1977). Justice Marshall charged that this standard “ma[de] a mockery” of Title VII, id. at 88 (dissenting op.), and three current Justices have called for reconsidering it post-haste. This case presents that opportunity.”
Either way this case goes (rejecting or reaffirming Hardison), it has the makings of a major religion clause case by a majority that has already handed down sweeping new authority in the last two years, including Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, forcing greater accommodation for religious exercise. The Court could tinker with the de minimus standard as too low and send the case back for consideration under a new, more accommodating standard.
The case adds to a docket already heavily laden with potentially transformative cases in areas ranging from free speech to free exercise to college admissions to copyright law.