US Supreme Court unanimously backs postal worker in Sabbath observance case

Ruling could have major ramifications for Orthodox Jews in the US.

By Andrew Bernard, The Algemeiner

In a unanimous ruling with significant ramifications for observant Jews, the US Supreme Court on Thursday enhanced protections for religious employees by clarifying its interpretation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protecting against religious discrimination in the workplace.

Justice Samuel Alito, writing for all nine justices, said that lower courts had made a “mistake” in their understanding of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, a 1977 case involving religious liberty and employment law.

According to Alito, lower courts interpreted the 1977 decision to mean that employers only need to provide accommodations for religion in the workplace if those accommodations do not impose more than a very small — or “de minimis” — cost on the employer. However, he argued, the high court had actually ruled that employers need to show that religious accommodations, such as allowing an employee to wear a turban or observe the Sabbath, impose an “undue hardship” on the employer before refusing them.

“A bevy of diverse religious organizations has told this Court that the de minimis test has blessed the denial of even minor accommodation in many cases, making it harder for members of minority faiths to enter the job market,” Alito wrote in his opinion. “What is most important is that ‘undue hardship’ in Title VII means what it says, and courts should resolve whether a hardship would be substantial in the context of an employer’s business in the commonsense manner that it would use in applying any such test.”

The case decided this week, Groff v. DeJoy, involved a former postal worker, Gerald Groff, who sued Postmaster General Louis DeJoy after Groff quit his job for being forced to work on Sundays. Groff is an evangelical Christian who observes a Sunday Sabbath during which he is not permitted to work according to his beliefs. However, he was nonetheless required to do so after the US Postal Service signed a contract with Amazon for Sunday deliveries. He launched his religious discrimination suit after two years of ad-hoc accommodations failed to meet his religious needs.

Jewish groups on Thursday welcomed the Supreme Court ruling as a major win for all people of faith in the workplace.

“The previous standard was the key obstacle to providing religious employees of all faiths the protection the law offered,” Rabbi Abba Cohen, vice president for government affairs and Washington director of Agudath Israel, which filed an amicus brief for Groff, said in a statement. “The standard was so low that employers didn’t even bother trying to accommodate the employees, and employees didn’t bother asserting their rights, knowing that they would suffer aggravation and expense on a losing case. Now, we are confident that the law better reflects what Congress desired and intended when it sought to protect the rights of religiously observant employees.”

Kenneth Marcus, founder and chairman of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, which also filed an amicus brief for Groff, told The Algemeiner that Thursday’s ruling was a big victory for religious freedom.

“It means that employers can no longer use the same excuses to deny Orthodox Jews and other religiously observant employees from doing what is required by their religious practice,” Marcus said. “This should mean that a lot more workers will be able to get the accommodations that their religion requires, such as schedules that don’t require them to work on Shabbat.”

Other Jewish groups including the American Jewish Committee, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, and the Anti-Defamation League issued statements supporting the Supreme Court’s ruling. Groff was also supported by Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, Sikh, and Islamic groups.

While the decision clarifies the Supreme Court’s understanding of Title VII, the ruling is not a complete victory in Groff’s favor. The case will now be remanded to lower courts to decide whether the religious accommodations that Groff demands would place an “undue hardship” on the Post Office.

According to Marcus, this process will have to be repeated in future religious discrimination suits.

“The courts will have to work out each case on its own basis looking at an array of factors including the number of other employees and what their schedules are and what is required in order to meet those needs,” he said.