The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to rule on expanding the federal civil rights law to protect workers who wish to take time off for religious observance.
The judges voted to hear the appeal of a former US Postal worker and evangelical Christian who was disciplined and eventually quit for refusing to deliver packages on Sundays.
His case highlighted a long-standing dispute over whether employers must give “due consideration” to a worker’s religious observance or refuse to do so if doing so poses even a minor hardship to their company.
In the case of postal worker Gerald Groff, his supervisors said it was difficult to find other employees to cover Amazon’s Sunday deliveries in his rural community near Lancaster, PA.
He sued for religious discrimination, but lost before a federal judge and in a 2-1 decision by the 3rd Circuit Court in Philadelphia, which agreed the employer faced hardship.
But the court’s conservatives have signaled that they are willing to reconsider and correct the law in this area, which they see as a mistake made in the 1970s. They said they agree with the leading Liberals of the time — Justices Thurgood Marshall and William J. Brennan — who accused the majority at the time of “ridiculing” Congress’s protection of religious freedom in the workplace.
The court said it will hear arguments in the Groff vs. DeJoy case in April and issue a decision by the end of June.
The case could bring together the liberal and conservative judges. A ruling on this issue would cover other aspects of religious practice, including wearing a scarf, turban or beard in the workplace. Lawyers representing Sikhs, Muslims, Jews and Seventh-day Adventists joined in supporting the appeal, urging the court to restore strong protections of religious freedom.
The litigation is not about the First Amendment’s protection of “freedom of worship,” but about workers’ rights.
The Civil Rights Act 1964 prohibited public and private employers from discriminating on the basis of race, religion, sex or national origin. In 1972, Congress extended this protection to “all aspects of religious observance and practice and belief.” According to the law, an employee’s claim of discrimination should take precedence “unless an employer demonstrates that it is unable to adequately account for the religious observance or practice of an employee or prospective employee without the direction of the employer’s business.” unduly aggravated”.
However, in its first major ruling on this provision, the Supreme Court watered down the provision in 1977, saying the law does not tilt in favor of religion or penalize employers. The judges in TWA vs. Hardison ruled that they are not obligated to “adjust the hours of work of some employees so that others can keep their Sabbath”.
In this case, Larry Hardison was an employee in the maintenance department at the Kansas City airport. A member of the Worldwide Church of God, he refused to work Saturday Sabbaths, but was willing to work night shifts and other unusual hours. However, both his union and the TWA refused to force others to work in his place on Saturdays, and he was fired.
“Requiring TWA to incur more than marginal costs to free Hardison on Saturdays is undue hardship,” the court said in a 7-2 decision.
“Today’s outcome is intolerable,” Marshall wrote contradictorily, “because the court takes the very position that Congress expressly rejected in 1972,” and it leaves staffers “with the cruel choice of abandoning their religion or their jobs.”