“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
While many identify the above sentiment as the U.S. Postal Service’s unofficial motto, the United States Supreme Court recently put a twist on things by taking up the question of what happens when it’s not the weather, but rather a religious obligation that keeps the mailman from delivering on Sunday. But wait, isn’t the post office closed on Sunday? When Gerald Groff was hired by the postal service eleven years ago, that was true. But in the era of online shopping, that isn’t necessarily the case, and now, Mr. Groff finds himself before the United States Supreme Court, arguing the postal service failed to reasonably accommodate his religious beliefs in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
Groff, an evangelical Christian, objected to working on Sundays. His request wasn’t a problem until 2016, when he was told he would have to work Sundays through peak holiday season. The post office attempted to accommodate him by transferring him to a location that didn’t deliver on Sunday, but then that post office started conducting Sunday deliveries the following year. The post office then offered him the chance to pray before work, but he opted to skip work on his scheduled Sundays altogether. Another associate covered his Sunday shifts for a while, but that person fell ill and Groff continued to miss Sunday shifts, which ultimately led to discipline. He attempted to transfer to a role that didn’t require Sunday work but when that effort was unsuccessful, he resigned and filed a lawsuit, citing claims of disparate treatment and failure to accommodate under Title VII.
Both the federal district court and the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit sided with the post office, who on the failure to accommodate claim, argued the employer need not fully rectify the conflict to satisfy the requirement to accommodate, and that Groff’s requested accommodation created an undue hardship for the business, meaning the post office didn’t have to provide the requested accommodation. Groff disagreed, and appealed to the Supreme Court arguing the undue hardship test requires an employer to incur “significant costs or difficulty” before being absolved of the duty to accommodate, and that “inconvenience” on fellow colleagues does not constitute an undue hardship. The Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in the matter on April 18, 2023.
If overturned, Groff poses the risk of a significant shift in obligations for employers with respect to religious accommodations. Employers covered by Title VII must accommodate employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs, unless doing so would cause an undue hardship. In the context of religious accommodation, the concept of undue hardship generally means a requested accommodation would result in “more than de minimis cost” to the employer. It’s a lower burden than the ADA undue hardship test, but still requires a showing by the employer of more than a hypothetical cost. It’s this standard Groff asks the Supreme Court to overturn. A change in the undue hardship test would result in an overhaul of decades-old precedent, and a significant negative impact on potential employer liability in this area.
Employers should stay up-to-date on the outcome of this case, and work with legal counsel to ensure religious accommodation policies and practices remain compliant in the event of a reversal of past precedent. For assistance or questions related to religious accommodations, contact Katie Campbell or another member of the firm’s Labor & Employment Practice Group.