Supreme Court to Reconsider Limits on Workplace Religious Accommodations

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All of us deserve equal treatment in the workplace. Nondiscrimination laws are designed to ensure that all employees are treated with respect and can work together to accomplish a shared goal. But the Supreme Court recently agreed to consider a case that could upend this basic principle. For the first time in nearly forty years, the justices will consider whether employers should treat religion differently than all other protected groups. A decision in favor of a former postal worker in DeJoy v. Groff could require employers to provide religious accommodations that harm other workers or the business itself.

Federal law prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, or national origin. Many workers receive accommodations based on their religious beliefs, including wearing clothing that differs from company requirements. For instance, in a famous case against Abercrombie & Fitch, the Supreme Court overwhelmingly found in favor of a Muslim job seeker who was rejected by the retailer because her headscarf violated their corporate “Look Policy” banning caps. The general counsel for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which represented the young woman, said that “at its root, this case is about defending the quintessentially American principles of religious freedom and tolerance.”

Yet some requests for accommodations go beyond personal expression, placing a burden on their coworkers or employer. Employers are required to make reasonable efforts to accommodate employees’ religious requests, but can draw the line at an “undue hardship” to their business. A common example is a worker who requests days off to allow for Sabbath or holiday observances. In practice, an employer should allow their colleagues to voluntarily swap shifts or, where possible, transfer the person requesting the accommodation into a role that meets their needs. But they are not required to take on more than a minor cost to their operations. 

Gerald Groff requested this type of accommodation as a postal employee in rural Pennsylvania. His employers tried to ensure that he would not be scheduled on a Sunday but, because his job description involved substituting for absent delivery workers, additional coverage for those shifts could not always be found. Groff did not come in for shifts scheduled on Sundays and the mail would pile up. The burden on his colleagues ultimately led one to leave the office and another to leave the Postal Service altogether. Groff received multiple disciplinary letters for his conduct and ultimately resigned in 2019. He has since sued his former employer for failure to provide sufficient religious accommodations, losing twice at the lower court level. 

What counts as a “reasonable” accommodation and when is the burden too great for an employer to bear? The outcome in this case could have ripple effects far beyond matters of scheduling, implicating behaviors that impact or even endanger colleagues and customers. The Supreme Court will grapple with issues of third party harm, workplace safety, and equal treatment under law at oral argument on April 18th, 2023.