The Sabbath at the Supreme Court

Over the past several months, I’ve been tracking the progress of what I call “Uncle Gerry’s Case.” Gerald Groff[1] is an Evangelical Christian of the conservative Mennonite variety hailing from beautiful Lancaster County, Pennsylvania who has become a champion of religious liberty, the Christian Sabbath, and “reasonable accommodation” under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

While “Uncle Gerry’s” particular case is not quite over, significant progress has been made with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Groff vs. DeJoy, Postmaster General. The ramifications of this landmark decision may be far-reaching as lower courts receive careful (and unanimously endorsed) direction on how to assess “undue hardship” in the accommodation of religion in the workplace.

Since the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, employers are prohibited under Title VII from discriminating against employees and potential employees on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, and religion (i.e., protected classes). In this context, “religion” includes both faith and practice, religious beliefs and religious activities. Sabbatarianism (i.e., resting from “secular work” to observe religious worship at particular regular times) falls within the purview of a protected religious activity under Title VII.

However, there are certain limitations as to what an employee can demand of an employer under Title VII. The operative regulatory phrase adopted in 1968 by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that sets the threshold is “reasonable accommodations to the religious needs of employees.” In 1972, Congress amended Title VII to make statutory what the EEOC had adopted as regulatory language in “reasonable accommodation.” The limit of what constitutes a “reasonable accommodation” is defined in the amended Title VII as that which would require “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” Thus, an employee cannot legally demand that an employer make an accommodation that would yield “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.”

Several years ago, Gerald Groff resigned from working as a mail carrier with the United States Postal Service (USPS) once his superiors began taking “progressive discipline” action against him for refusing to work on the first day of the week, commonly recognized to be the Christian Sabbath or Lord’s Day. He then took his former employer to court for failing to make a “reasonable accommodation” for his religious practice as protected under Title VII. After losing his case at the District Court and the Third Circuit, Groff and his legal counsel (First Liberty) requested a writ of certiorari to have the “Faithful Carrier” case heard before the Supreme Court, which then reversed the decisions of the lower courts with a unanimous ruling in “Uncle Gerry’s” favor.

My distant kinsman’s case raises a number of questions of interest to Christians and other Americans who value religious liberty in the workplace. First, how did the Sabbath get before the Supreme Court in 2023?

This week’s landmark decision has historical roots in the Supreme Court’s 1977 decision in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison. In that earlier case, another man took his employer to court after he was fired for refusing (for religious reasons) to work on the seventh day of the week. As helpfully explained in Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion on behalf of the Court in Groff v. DeJoy, the Hardison case established precedent for how courts are to interpret the meaning of “undue hardship.”

In Hardison, the complications introduced by an individual employee’s sabbatarian convictions were found to introduce “undue hardship” when brought into conflict with collective bargaining arrangements between the employer and the union. In this case, Mr. Hardison’s union partnered with the employer to defend bona fide seniority privileges over and against sincerely held religious convictions and otherwise protected activities. Since Title VII protects both seniority and religion, navigating the competing interests of various employees introduced an “undue hardship” for Mr. Hardison’s employer. However, courts have read a single line of text in the Hardison decision to define “undue hardship” under Title VII as anything “more than . . . de minimis” (i.e., more than trivial or negligible). As the Supreme Court’s unanimous opinion in Groff v. DeJoy makes clear, “undue hardship” cannot mean merely “more than . . . de minimis.”

So, what defines an “undue hardship” when employees request a “reasonable accommodation” from their employers on religious grounds? The legal counsel for both Gerald Groff and for the Postmaster General agreed that de minimis is not an appropriate standard for determining “undue hardship.” Groff’s counsel argued that an “undue hardship” should be understood strictly as “significant difficulty or expense,” and the Government (for the Postmaster General) argued that “undue hardship” should be understood as “substantial expenditures” or “substantial additional costs.” However, Justice Alito wrote on behalf of the Court, “We think it is enough to say that an employer must show that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.”

To demonstrate an “undue burden,” an employer must make the case to the courts that the accommodation being demanded or requested by an employee or group of employees “would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.” That is, the de minimis test is now thrown out. This is what makes Groff v. DeJoy such a landmark case. The Supreme Court of the United States has not overturned Hardison, but it has clarified its meaning and thereby corrected years of misinterpretation.

The Court’s correction on this point is in favor of the protection of religious liberty in workplaces governed by Title VII. Employers must “reasonably accommodate” religious beliefs and practices. When employers refuse to make certain accommodations, they must demonstrate the “undue hardship” in their refusal while also establishing that they are prepared to make all “reasonable accommodations.” Further, lower courts must do the work of assessing the potential costs of meeting employee requests that employers refused by claiming that they would introduce business-damaging “substantial increased costs.” In other words, it is no longer enough for an employer simply to claim a de minimis burden as an “undue hardship” in the refusal of a request for accommodation. The unanimity of the Court in this case should encourage sabbatarian Christians and adherents of other religions as lower courts are directed to judge Title VII cases in closer correspondence to what the EEOC publishes rather than to what courts have wrongly ruled on the basis of a faulty interpretation of Hardison.

One further question raised by the Court’s decision in Groff v. DeJoy has to do with coworkers. Can employers claim that the grievances, complaints, and protestations of employees who are opposed to granting religious accommodations to other employees introduce an “undue burden” on their business? The short answer is “no.” The Court writes, “a hardship that is attributable to employee animosity to a particular religion, to religion in general, or to the very notion of accommodating religious practice cannot be considered ‘undue.’ If bias or hostility to a religious practice or a religious accommodation provided a defense to a reasonable accommodation claim, Title VII would be at war with itself.”

However, Justices Sotomayor and Jackson in a concurring opinion make the claim that “if there is an undue hardship on ‘the conduct of the employer’s business,’ 42 U. S. C. §2000e(j), then such hardship is sufficient, even if it consists of hardship on employees.” If, when, and where claims of such hardship are made against a request for religious accommodation (e.g., an employee’s refusal to wear uniform attire that endorses a particular political or social view; an employer’s prohibition on male employees growing beards or female employees wearing a headscarf; or an employee’s request not to work on a certain day of the week), it will be up to courts to judge whether such claims are valid or not.

Though I only know “Uncle Gerry” from afar, I have never seen him any happier than in the photos published by his legal counsel with the announcement of the Supreme Court’s ruling in his favor. I enthusiastically send to him my sincere congratulations even as I express my heartfelt gratitude and appreciation for his Christian courage and faithfulness to the God of our fathers.

Zachary Groff (MDiv, Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary) is Pastor of Antioch Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Woodruff, SC, and he serves as Managing Editor of The Confessional Journal and as Editor-in-Chief of the Presbyterian Polity website.

[1] I am not aware of our precise direct relation, but I am confident that Gerald Groff and I have common Groff/Gräf ancestry in Mennonite refugees to colonial America or their (and our) more distant ancestors in Bäretswil, Zürich, Switzerland.