Supreme Court Hears Sabbath Showdown in Religious Accommodation Case

Author: David B. Weisenfeld

April 19, 2023

The Supreme Court heard a high-profile religious accommodation dispute yesterday that may expand when employers must accommodate their employees' religious beliefs under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

Groff v. DeJoy involves a Pennsylvania postal worker who asked to be exempted from delivering Amazon packages on Sundays for the US Postal Service because of his Christian religious beliefs. "Employees should not be forced to choose between their faith and their job," said attorney Aaron Streett, representing the plaintiff.

"Under the government's test, a diabetic employee could receive snack breaks under the ADA but not prayer breaks under Title VII," said Streett, who also argued that an employee could receive weekly leave for pregnancy checkups but not to attend mass.

Undue Hardship

Title VII bars discrimination based on religion and requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations unless doing so would result in an undue hardship for the business. It is the definition of "undue hardship" that is at the center of the case.

In the present case, the Postal Service at first had other employees fill in for the plaintiff on Sundays. But this soon created what the employer felt was an undue hardship that was affecting the morale of other employees. As a result, it informed the plaintiff he would have to work some scheduled Sunday shifts or find another job.

That argument resonated with Justice Sonia Sotomayor. "Here's a man who applied for a job where he has to work Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, and now he doesn't want to work half the days he was hired to work." To Sotomayor, that seemed like a clear undue hardship on the employer.

But plaintiff's attorney Streett asserted, "We wouldn't accept, for example, in the ADA or in the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act context, that workers are upset because they're having to pick up a little bit of slack for their pregnant coworker or for their disabled coworker," he said. To show evidence of an undue hardship, Street said, "It's not enough to have morale issues. It's not enough to have grumbling."

Representing the government, Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar said far more than grumbling was at issue, claiming the plaintiff's accommodation caused employee retention problems, with one coworker quitting, another transferring and a third filing a union grievance. "This was not some minor inconvenience," she told the Court. "There were real-world costs on the other employees."

Empathy for Religious Rights

The Court's conservative majority seemed sympathetic to aspects of the employee's argument. Justice Samuel Alito, in particular, suggested that the case came down to dollars and cents. "Say Amazon has to offer a $16 an hour rate instead of $15 an hour to get a consistent volunteer to take a Saturday-Sunday shift for a Jehovah's Witness or an Orthodox Jew, is that an undue hardship?"

The justices have taken a broader view of religious rights in recent years, causing speculation that the justices may use this case to scale back Hardison and make it more difficult for employers to evade religious accommodation requests.

Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh seemed inclined to send the case back to the lower courts to redefine what rises to the level of an undue hardship.

A decision in the case is expected by the end of the Supreme Court's term in late June.