The former evangelical Christian postal worker’s fight with the US Postal Service over his refusal to work on Sundays gives the Supreme Court another chance to expand religious rights, but it has also sparked a debate: whether religious people more than others, in terms of legally, days off on weekends.
Justices are scheduled to hear arguments next Tuesday in Gerald Groff, a former Pennsylvania postal worker’s appeal of a lower court’s decision to dismiss his religious discrimination claim against the Postal Service, which denied his request to be exempt from work on Sunday, when they observe the Christian Sabbath.
Groff sued after he was disciplined for repeatedly failing to show up when he was assigned a Sunday shift, according to Reuters.
The court, with a conservative 6-3 majority, has a history of expanding religious rights in recent years, often siding with Christian plaintiffs.
A ruling in Groff’s favor could make things difficult for businesses.
“The basic idea of religious accommodation is that you have to make special or favorable arrangements in order to have an inclusive workforce,” said Alan Reinach, one of Groff’s lawyers.
Boston University Law School labor law expert Michael Harper said a ruling in Groff’s favor could “give a preference to the religious because they can stay home on the Sabbath or on their day of rest,” which would be denied to non-religious people.
Harper added, “Anytime you move away from neutral standards, it creates the potential for more friction in the workplace.”
Unions representing postal workers have urged the Supreme Court to carefully consider the difficulties that religious accommodations for some employees could have on co-workers.
“A day off is not the special privilege of the religious. Days off, especially weekends, are days when parents can spend the day with children who are otherwise at school, when people can spend time with the other necessities of life, when the community enjoys a common day of rest for those who go to church and non-religious alike,” the American Postal Workers Union said in a memo.
Groff’s case centers on a federal anti-discrimination law called Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on religion and other factors, including race, sex and national origin.
Under Title VII, employers must accommodate a worker’s religious practices unless doing so would cause the company “undue hardship” — which the Supreme Court, in a 1977 case called Trans World Airlines v. Hardison , determined that it is anything that imposes more than a minor or “de minimis” cost.
Groff’s lawyers asked the Supreme Court to overturn the Hardison precedent and require companies to demonstrate “significant hardship or expense” before denying an accommodation.
Groups representing some minority religions in the United States, including Islam, Judaism and Hinduism, told the Supreme Court that the Hardison standard disproportionately affected them and should be revised.
“By allowing employers to refuse to accommodate employees’ beliefs for almost any reason, Hardison forces devout employees to make an impossible daily choice between religious duty and livelihood,” the Muslim Public Affairs Council wrote in a memo.
Representing the Postal Service, President Joe Biden’s administration told the justices there was no need to revisit the Hardison decision because the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency that enforces Title VII, and many lower courts have already interpreted that ruling to provide substantial protection to religious employees.
James Phillips, a law professor at Chapman University in California, said a “strong majority” or even all of the justices could side with Groff.
“This could be one of those religious freedom cases where the right and the left are actually aligned,” Phillips said.
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