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Liberals, Conservatives Alike Praise High Court's Religious Accommodations Ruling

Liberals, Conservatives Alike Praise High Court's Religious Accommodations Ruling

Rosary and Supreme Court building

The court set a new standard for consideration of religious accommodations in the workplace but did not rule on the merits in the case of a man who refused to work Sundays because of his Christian beliefs.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Thursday ruling on religious accommodations in the workplace appears to be something both liberals and conservatives can get behind.

In Groff v. DeJoy, postal worker Gerald Groff had sued the U.S. Postal Service because of a requirement that he deliver packages on Sundays, when he declined to work because of his Christian beliefs. He had joined the postal service in 2012, partly because it then required no Sunday work, but soon afterward the service began doing the Sunday package deliveries under a contract with Amazon. He still refused to work Sundays.

“His absences on Sundays led co-workers to quit, transfer or cover for him,” The Washington Post reports. After being disciplined, he resigned and sued the postal service for religious discrimination. He lost at the trial and appeals court levels, but the Supreme Court delivered a more favorable ruling Thursday, although it did not weigh in on the specifics of his case.

In the unanimous ruling, the court held that employers should accommodate workers’ religious practices unless doing so would impose a substantial hardship on the employer’s business. It did not rule on the merits of Groff’s case but sent it back to a lower court to decide according to that standard instead of one in a 1977 case, TWA v. Hardison, that said employers could reject accommodations if they imposed even a minimal cost.

“This highly flexible new rule might potentially be used by far-right judges to give religious conservatives an unfair upper hand in disputes with their employer’s human resources department. Such is the price of vague legal rules,” legal scholar Ian Millhiser wrote at Vox.

“That said, the actual holding of Groff — that most requests for religious accommodations should be granted, and that an employer cannot dodge this obligation because it might impose minimal costs on the employer — is largely benign. Indeed, it is likely to benefit many employees who make reasonable requests for accommodations that might have been denied under an earlier, less employee-friendly rule.”

Conservative Justice Samuel Alito wrote the opinion, but he didn’t “take sides in America’s culture wars in the same way that he did in Hobby Lobby and similar cases,” Millhiser wrote. In 2014’s Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision, Alito wrote for the court’s majority that even a for-profit business such as Hobby Lobby could ignore the Affordable Care Act’s mandate for contraceptive coverage in employee health plans if the employer objected on a religious basis.

Lambda Legal, which handles cases involving the rights of LGBTQ+ people and those living with HIV, praised the Groff ruling, albeit with some caveats.

“It is gratifying that the Supreme Court today recognized that employers may consider the effect a requested accommodation has on others in the workplace in assessing whether the accommodation would substantially burden the conduct of its business,” Karen Loewy, senior counsel and director of constitutional law practice at Lambda Legal, said in a press release. “While antidiscrimination laws absolutely require accommodation of religion, some requested accommodations unfairly burden coworkers, impact workplace morale, and expose coworkers to dignitary harms in ways that impose costs and harm the business itself. We must remain vigilant as lower courts apply this standard, particularly where a requested accommodation would result in coworkers facing hostile, discriminatory statements or conduct at work.”

“Title VII [of the Civil Rights Act of 1964] clearly requires that employees, whenever practical, should be exempt from general workplace rules when those rules conflict with their religious practice,” added Gregory Nevins, senior counsel and employment fairness project director at Lambda Legal. “However, that requirement cannot be read to extend to situations where granting an exemption causes hardship for the conduct of the employer’s business, and clearly that must include the impact on other workers. Today’s ruling will make the workplace more hospitable for workers whose religious practice and observance varies from the majority. At the same time, employers should be able to say no to employees who insist on berating, proselytizing, condemning, or misgendering their coworkers.”

Lambda Legal and Americans United for Separation of Church and State had filed a friend-of-the-court brief saying the Supreme Court should revisit the minimal cost standard and offering a framework for evaluating whether an employee’s religious accommodations impose an undue burden on the business or coworkers. Such briefs are filed by parties that are not directly involved in a case but have an interest in the issues being addressed.

“At bottom, while co-workers are not entitled to a ‘heckler’s veto’ over religious accommodations, Title VII allows employers to consider the many respects in which accommodations may burden co-workers (and customers) as part of the ‘undue hardship’ analysis,” they wrote.

Americans United issued a statement expressing relief at the Groff ruling. “We’re facing an aggressive movement working to weaponize religious freedom, but religious freedom must never be a license to harm others, and that remains true in the workplace,’ said President and CEO Rachel Laser. “Today, in a unanimous opinion, the court ‘clarified’ the standard for granting religious accommodations without overturning precedent.

“Religious accommodations that don’t burden or harm others, like wearing a hijab or having a beard, or praying privately, are exactly what the law was designed to permit. In this case, however, Groff was hired as a part-time, flexible carrier at a 4-person post office, and he refused to show up for 24 Sundays of work. He refused to work the same flexible schedule for which he was hired. This created huge burdens for the remaining (mostly Christian) employees and led them to resign, transfer, file grievances, and cover for him while he, as he admitted, watched NASCAR on Sundays.

“We argued that whatever standard the court adopted for workers seeking religious accommodations, the only way to ensure equality was to ensure that workers obeying the rules of their own religion do not harm others. If anything else were true, one religion would be superior to others. The court’s ‘clarified’ standard correctly allows employers to continue to consider the burdens an employee’s requested accommodation could impose on co-workers. Importantly, Groff has not won this case. The court refused to decide the specifics of Groff’s case and is leaving that to the lower courts, which got this case right the first time around. We live to fight another day.”

On the right, the legal nonprofits Becket and the First Liberty Institute also praised the Groff ruling, Catholic News Agency reports. They largely represent Christians and are known for taking anti-LGBTQ+ cases. However, at least one group representing a minority faith lauded it as well — the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“Today’s Supreme Court ruling is an important victory for all people of faith, including American Muslims,” CAIR National Executive Director Nihad Awad said in a press release. “For too long, American Muslims have been denied the right to perform daily prayers at work, wear hijab or kufi, or attend prayers on Fridays. Today marks a new era.”

Friday is the last day for the Supreme Court to issue rulings this year, so that will be the day it rules on whether a business can turn away LGBTQ+ customers. That case is 303 Creative v. Elenis.

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