The Supreme Court on Thursday expanded protections for religious workers in a case involving a US Postal Service mailman who refused to work on his Sabbath.
In a unanimous decision, the judges rejected a test that had long been used to determine what accommodations an employer should make for religious workers, but declined to rule on the merits of the case, sending it back to a lower court to be considered under a new standard.
Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote for the court that the case provided the “first opportunity in nearly 50 years” to explain the nuances of how workplaces must adapt to employee religious requests.
If an employer denies an employee’s request for religious accommodations, Judge Alito wrote, he must “show that the burden of providing accommodations would result in significantly increased costs related to the conduct of his particular business.”
The decision could affect countless workplaces and could require many employers to make substantial changes to accommodate religious workers.
The ruling is the latest in a series by the court that has focused on expanding the role of religion in public life, sometimes at the expense of other values, such as gay rights and access to birth control.
In recent years, the Supreme Court has ruled that a high school football coach had the constitutional right to pray at the 50-yard line after his team’s games, that state programs supporting private schools in Maine and Montana must include religious programs, that a Catholic social service in Philadelphia could defy city rules and refuse to work with same-sex couples who apply to take in foster children, and that the Trump administration could allow employers with religious objections to offer contraceptive coverage to female employees to refuse.
The latest decision may be less divisive than some of the court’s recent rulings on religion, in part because protecting Sabbath observance may not divide Americans along usual lines. Indeed, liberal judges have historically tried to shield workers from disciplinary action and dismissal for following their beliefs, and all three in court signed off on the decision.
The case was brought by Gerald Groff, an evangelical Christian and former missionary who worked as a deputy postman. After the Post struck a deal with Amazon to deliver parcels on Sundays in 2013, Mr Groff said he had to choose between his faith and his livelihood and chose to quit after being punished for missing work.
“I felt like I had a choice between what the post office wanted and what God wanted from me,” said Mr. Groff in an interview Thursday. “I hope this inspires people, because in America we have these freedoms and they are protected.”
The Postal Service said in a statement it was confident it would prevail once the lower court reconsidered the case.
Mr. Groff was represented by First Liberty Institute, which describes itself as the largest legal organization in the country dedicated solely to the defense of religious freedom.
Kelly Shackelford, First Liberty’s president and chief counsel, welcomed the ruling, saying it restored “religious freedom to every American in the workplace.”
“This decision will positively help millions and millions of Americans – those who are working now and their children and grandchildren,” he said.
American Atheists, who advocate for secularism in government policies and have submitted an amicus brief in support of the Postal Service, said the ruling continues a worrying trend of “expanding loopholes, adjustments and ‘entitlements’ for the religious while more burdens are shifted onto atheists. humanists and non-religious.”
Mr Groff had filed a lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a federal law that requires employers to “accommodate reasonably” employees’ religious practices so long as they can do so “without undue hardship” for the business of the company.
A 1977 precedent, Trans World Airlines v. Hardison, stood in his way. That decision stated that employers need not house employees if the effort imposes more than an insignificant or “de minimis” burden on their company.
Postal service lawyers argued that Mr Groff’s refusal to work on Sundays placed a significant burden on a small post office, was at odds with a union agreement and was bad for the morale of other workers.
Lower courts ruled against Mr. Groff. Judge Patty Shwartz, writing for a divided three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, in Philadelphia, said that “exempting Groff from working on Sunday created more than a de minimis cost to USPS because it his co-workers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and lowered employee morale.
Judge Thomas M. Hardiman disagreed, writing that “the majority sufficiently burdens employees to establish unnecessary hardships, effectively rendering Title VII religious accommodation subject to a heckler’s veto by disgruntled employees.”