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Supreme Court broadens religious protections for workers

Unanimous ruling finds employers must show ‘substantial increased costs’ to deny an accommodation

Visitors on Tuesday file into the U.S. Supreme Court building before the court handed down decisions.
Visitors on Tuesday file into the U.S. Supreme Court building before the court handed down decisions. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Supreme Court broadened religious protections for workers Thursday in a ruling that clarified when employers can refuse religious accommodations for workers.

The unanimous opinion, written by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., found that employers must show that granting such an accommodation would lead to “substantial increased costs” in relation to the conduct of its business.

Alito wrote that justices are “brushing away” an incorrect interpretation of a previous Supreme Court case on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. He pointed out that a diverse group of religious organizations contended that the interpretation had “blessed the denial of even minor accommodation in many cases, making it harder for members of minority faiths to enter the job market.”

The case stems from a suit brought by a rural mail carrier in Pennsylvania, Gerald Groff, who quit rather than deliver Amazon packages on Sundays, citing his Christian religion. He 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, which found employers did not have to bear “undue hardship” to accommodate employees’ religious observance.

In court filings, Groff argued 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.

The 3rd Circuit and other lower courts — based on a line in the 1977 decision — interpreted “undue hardship” to mean any cost or effort that is more than “de minimis,” Alito wrote in the ruling.

But that interpretation is “erroneous,” Alito wrote, and “may have had the effect of leading courts to pay insufficient attention to what the actual text of Title VII means with regard to several recurring issues.”

“We think it is enough to say that an employer must show that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business,” the opinion states.

The Supreme Court found that the law requires that an employer reasonably accommodate a worker’s religious practice, “not merely that it assess the reasonableness of a particular possible accommodation or accommodations.”

“This distinction matters. Faced with an accommodation request like Groff’s, it would not be enough for an employer to conclude that forcing other employees to work overtime would constitute an undue hardship,” the court ruled. “Consideration of other options, such as voluntary shift swapping, would also be necessary.”

Some congressional Republicans had backed such an interpretation in briefs filed in the case.

The Biden administration had argued that the court should leave the issue for members of Congress, who have spent decades considering and rejecting a higher standard to accommodate religious employees.

The Justice Department told the justices that Groff asked “this Court to do what Congress would not” by rewriting the law.

The existing law may provide too little protection for religious workers, according to the Biden administration brief, 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.”

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