In Tuesday’s oral argument in Groff v. DeJoy, Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court struggled to define a proper test for workplace rules that balance respect for employees’ religious liberty with their employers’ need for efficiency.
This case revolves around former postal worker Gerald Groff, an evangelical Christian in Pennsylvania who alleged that his civil rights were violated when the Postal Service denied his right to refrain from working on Sunday.
A central question emerged: when an employee wants to take time off due to religious beliefs, is the prevailing standard of hardship that must experienced by employers too expansive – too generous – to the employer?
Another question: How can a court measure the degree of hardship an employer must suffer from an employee’s regular absence on a day of religious observance before it becomes actionable?
Justice Neil Gorsuch said there is “common ground” that a hardship standard that is de minimis (or trivial) “can’t be the test, in isolation at least, because Congress doesn’t pass civil rights legislation to have de minimis effect, right? We don’t think of the civil rights laws as trifling, which is the definition of de minimis.”
Justice Samuel Alito criticized the precedent created by the Supreme Court’s 1977 decision in Trans World Airlines, Inc., v. Hardison, which held that employers can fire workers who refuse to work on a seventh day sabbath, as “an exercise in constitutional avoidance.” Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar said that under Hardison, the lower courts have interpreted that decision in a way that properly respects the rights of minority religions.
Justice Alito responded sharply: “[W]e have amicus briefs here by many representatives of many minority religions, Muslims, Hindus, Orthodox Jews, Seventh Day Adventists, and they all say that is just not true, and that Hardison has violated their right to religious liberty.”
The quest for “common ground” was repeated by several Justices, a ray of hope that the Court may craft a new doctrine with more latitude for the religious. Based on Tuesday’s oral arguments, it would be foolhardy to predict how the Justices will come down on this one. Protect The 1st can only direct attention to Justice Thurgood Marshall’s dissent in Hardison:
“The ultimate tragedy is that despite Congress’ best efforts, one of this Nation’s pillars of strength – our hospitality to religious diversity – has been seriously eroded. All Americans will be a little poorer until today’s decision is erased.”