Federal law bars employers from discriminating against workers for practicing their religion unless the employer can show that the worker’s religious practice cannot “reasonably” be accommodated without “undue hardship.” The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that a trivial burden is not the kind of “undue hardship” that will justify an employer’s failure to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs. Instead, the court explained, an employer must accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs unless it can show that doing so would “result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of” the employer’s business.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote for a unanimous court. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a concurring opinion, which was joined by Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.
The ruling was largely a victory for the plaintiff in the case, Gerald Groff. Groff, an evangelical Christian who believes that Sundays should be reserved for rest and worship. Groff began working for the U.S. Postal Service in 2012, but he was disciplined after he refused to come to work on Sundays and he resigned in 2019. Groff had urged the court to overturn Trans World Airlines v. Hardison, a 1977 decision on the meaning of the “undue hardship” provision. Instead, Groff contended, the justices should hold that employers must accommodate their employees’ religious practices unless doing so would require significant difficulty and expense. The justices declined either to reconsider their earlier ruling or adopt that high bar, but they sent Groff’s case back to the lower court for another look under the standard they outlined on Thursday.
In a 21-page opinion, Alito explained that although lower courts since Hardison have interpreted the phrase “undue hardship” to mean “any effort or cost that is ‘more than … de minimis,’” that interpretation is “a mistake.” The court’s decision in Hardison, Alito observed, focused primarily on whether federal employment discrimination laws required the airline and the union to accommodate an employee’s religious practices at the expense of the seniority rights of more senior employees.
The question of when additional costs constitute an “undue hardship” received relatively little attention, Alito stressed. So, although the court’s opinion in Hardison indicated that it would be an “undue hardship” to require the airline to “bear more than a de minimis cost in order to give Hardison Saturdays off” to observe the Sabbath, that language, Alito reasoned, was not necessarily intended as an “authoritative interpretation” of what it means for something to be an “undue hardship.” To the contrary, Alito noted, elsewhere in Hardison the court indicated “three times that an accommodation is not required when it entails ‘substantial’ ‘costs’ or ‘expenditures.’”
A more demanding standard, Alito added, is also more consistent with the text of the phrase “undue hardship.” The term “hardship,” Alito wrote, “is more severe than a mere burden.” And if the hardship is “undue,” Alito continued, it must be “excessive” or “unjustifiable” – which is something “very different from a burden that is merely more than de minimis, i.e., something that is ‘very small or trifling.’”
Alito rejected both Groff’s suggestion that the employer must accommodate the employee’s religious practices unless the employer would incur significant difficulty or expense and the Biden administration’s suggestion, which focused on the “substantial expenditures” or “substantial additional costs” that the employer would incur. Instead, Alito concluded, “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.”
Alito then sent Groff’s case back to the lower courts for more proceedings. Because the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit had relied on the “more than de minimis cost” standard, he wrote, it may have overlooked other possible accommodations, such as “the cost of incentive pay, or the administrative costs of coordination with other nearby stations with a broader set of employees.” The lower courts, he indicated, should apply “the clarified context-specific standard” that the court had outlined on Thursday.
Sotomayor, joined by Jackson, wrote separately to note that although Groff had asked the justices to hold that the employer must show “undue hardship to its business” from accommodating an employee’s religious practices, the court on Thursday had indicated only that the employer must show “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business” – which, Sotomayor emphasized, could include burdens on the business’s employees. “Indeed,” Sotomayor stressed, “for many businesses, labor is more important to the conduct of the business than any other factor.”
In a press release, the First Liberty Institute, which represented Groff, hailed the decision as a “far-reaching” one that means “fewer religious employees will have to choose between their faith and their job.” Thursday’s ruling, the group said, “means that more employers will be legally required to respect their religious employees by granting them accommodations,” which religious employees “often seek” “to honor their holy days, to take prayer breaks during the day, to dress according to their religious beliefs, or to otherwise not be forced to violate their religious beliefs on the job.”
The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, a group that often stakes out a position on the opposite side from First Liberty, also praised Thursday’s decision. The BJC’s general counsel, Holly Hollman, called the ruling a “victory for religious minorities, who disproportionately claim the need for workplace accommodations.” Although “there will certainly be future disputes,” Hollman acknowledged, “today’s unanimous decision points us in a positive direction where all Americans across ideological and religious differences can come together to defend faith freedom for all.”
This post is also published on SCOTUSblog.