The Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision this week that will expand religious protections for workers.
The high court ruled in favor of Gerald Gross, a Pennsylvania postal worker, who asked his employer for accommodations because of his faith. Groff was arguing against the U.S. Postal Service being able to require him to deliver packages for Amazon on Sundays, a day that he observes as his Sabbath.
In April, Aaron Streett, who was Groff’s attorney in the matter, said the Supreme Court needed to revisit the precedent set 50 years ago that established the test that determines when employers should give accommodations to employees based on their religious practices.
By ruling in favor of Gross, the Supreme Court overturned the precedent that was set in 1977 that said all employers were required to “reasonably accommodate” the religious practices and beliefs of all of their employees. They were required to do so as long as doing so wouldn’t create an “undue hardship” to the employer.
That “undue hardship” standard is not tightened by this latest Supreme Court decision, which could end up making it easier for some employees to get accommodations for religious purposes with their employer.
The “undue hardship” clause was part of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The 1977 Supreme Court case of Trans World Airlines v. Hardison allowed employers to deny an employees’ religious accommodation requests if they would impose “more than a de minimis cost” to the business.
Streett had argued before the high court that the “de minimus” test should ultimately be scrapped, with Title VII’s plain language being used instead. That defines the “undue burden” the exact same way that other federal laws including the Americans with Disabilities Act does.
During his oral arguments in the case, Streett told the Supreme Court justices:
“The government believes undue hardship arises whenever there is lost efficiency, weekly payment of premium wages or denial of a coworkers’ shift preference. Thus, under the government’s test, a diabetic employee could receive snack breaks under the ADA but not prayer breaks under Title VII, for that might cause lost efficiency.”
Elizabeth Prelgar was the U.S. solicitor general who argued the other side of the case, against overturning the 1977 Hardison case. Part of her argument was that if it were overturned, almost 50 years of case law that has been established already would be “up for grabs” with a new standard for “undue burden.”
In his opinion on the case, conservative Justice Samuel Alito wrote:
“To be sure, as the Solicitor General notes, some lower courts have understood that the protection for religious adherents is greater than ‘more than … de minimus’ might suggest when read in isolation. But a bevy of diverse religious organizations has told this Court that the de minimus 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.”