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Supreme Court to hear arguments on workplace religious protections

Republicans urge justices to interpret a law to better accommodate employees’ religious observance

The Supreme Court building is seen at dusk in Washington in 2021.
The Supreme Court building is seen at dusk in Washington in 2021. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday in a case that could expand religious protections for workers under a law changed in 1972, an interpretation backed by some congressional Republicans.

The case stems from a suit brought by a rural mail carrier in Pennsylvania who quit rather than deliver Amazon packages on Sundays because of his Christian religion and then sued the U.S. Postal Service for discrimination.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit ruled in the Postal Service’s favor, citing a landmark decision from the Supreme Court in 1977, Transworld Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, that found employers did not have to bear “undue hardship” to accommodate employees’ religious observance.

The postal carrier, Gerald Groff, argued in court papers that the 1977 decision tamped down on the religious rights of employees that Congress meant to protect in the 1972 amendments to the Civil Rights Act.

Groff’s brief to the Supreme Court argued the justices should instead adopt a higher standard for employers to comply with, such as what Congress included in the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.

“Anything less disrespects the text and upsets the balance Congress struck,” Groff’s brief said.

That argument also has backing from two separate groups of congressional Republicans. A brief from lawmakers including Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, James Lankford of Oklahoma, Ted Cruz of Texas, Mike Lee of Utah, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, as well as another seven House members, argued for the Supreme Court to overturn the 1977 decision.

That Hardison decision set “a destructive precedent that Congress does not mean what it says it means, even in the clearest of cases, and making it very easy for employers to deny requests for religious accommodation,” the Republican brief wrote.

The Supreme Court should instead adopt the higher standard, where an employer would have to demonstrate a “significant difficulty or expense,” if it sought to duck an accommodation for a religious employee.

A separate brief from Rubio, Lankford of and Tim Scott of South Carolina, along with a dozen Republican House members, argued last year for the Supreme Court to take up the case.

In the 1977 decision, the Supreme Court “flouted Congress’ intent to robustly protect the religious freedom of employees,” the Republicans wrote, which should now be reversed “before any more persons of faith, like Gerald Groff, are forced to decide between their job and their God.”

The Biden administration, in a brief in the case, argued that members of Congress have spent decades considering and rejecting a higher standard to accommodate religious employees.

Groff and others now ask “this Court to do what Congress would not,” by rewriting the statute, the Justice Department’s brief said.

The existing law may provide too little protection for religious workers, the brief said, but “that argument should be directed to Congress, which is better positioned to weigh the competing interests in this sensitive area and strike the appropriate balance.”

The Biden administration also pointed out that Groff’s position could allow religious workers’ accommodations to interfere with other workers’ rights.

Joshua McDaniel, a law professor at Harvard Law School who specializes in First Amendment cases, said that for years employers have been able to largely ignore the religious observance of their employee.

The 1977 decision means that even something as minimal as a lack of uniformity or customer discomfort could be enough for an employer to show a burden on the conduct of their business, which let them off the hook of accommodating religion, McDaniel said in an interview.

McDaniel, who also filed a brief in the case at the Supreme Court on behalf of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, said that courts have interpreted the test in the 1977 case too broadly. In the brief, McDaniel wrote the burden has fallen on adherents of minority faiths such as Islam.

“For people of minority faiths and other marginalized communities, losing this protection has severe and long-term consequences,” the brief said.

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