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Supreme Court Strengthens Religious Protections for Employees and Sabbath Observance

Image by Mark Thomas from Pixabay

On June 29, the Supreme Court gave a unanimous ruling in favor of Gerald Groff, a former postal service employee in Pennsylvania who claims to have faced retaliation for refusing to work on Sundays. Groff v. DeJoy has been heralded as a victory for religious freedom, as it strikes down elements of a previous case used by employers to justify denying accommodations to religious employees.

This week, I spoke with attorney Alan Reinach about the decision. “It’s a home run,” he said.

Reinach is the executive director of the Church State Council, a religious liberty ministry of the Pacific Union Conference that provides education, advocacy, and legal services, not only for Adventist Church members but to anyone dealing with religious liberty issues. In 2018, Reinach received a referral from another organization and became the first lawyer to work with Groff on his case.

When Groff began working as a mail carrier in Pennsylvania, the USPS did not make deliveries on Sunday, which as an evangelical Christian he observes as a day of worship. Soon after, the USPS entered into an agreement with Amazon that included Sunday deliveries. Groff initially was able to transfer to a small, rural post office that didn’t join in the Sunday deliveries, but later the new position also began to require Sunday work. The USPS made some attempts to have other employees cover Groff’s Sunday deliveries, but over time, he received discipline for his continued refusals. In 2019, he resigned.

Though Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act established that employers could not discriminate based on characteristics such as race, sex, and religion, debate over the lengths to which employers must go to accommodate religion has continued in the decades since. A later amendment to the act and further government directives clarified that employers must “reasonably accommodate” an employee’s religious practice unless doing so would impose an “undue hardship.” That fuzzy language was further explored in the 1977 Supreme Court case TWA v. Hardison, which involved an employee who was fired after refusing to work on Saturdays. The opinion in the Hardison case said that having to bear even a small cost—de minimis, in the legal terminology—constituted an undue burden on the employer. The wording has vexed religious liberty advocates ever since.

Alan Reinach began working with the Church State Council in 1994, and over the years, he has sought to forge partnerships with other faiths, such as working with Sikh and Muslim groups on a 2012 California bill for enhanced workplace religion protections. He also watched from a distance as the case of an Adventist man alleging discrimination for refusing to work on Sabbaths was appealed to the Supreme Court in 2020. Although the court declined to hear that case, several of the conservative justices indicated they would be interested in reviewing the issues created by TWA v. Hardison in the future.

“I think that really spurred a lot more interest in getting the court to take a case,” Reinach said. According to Reinach, most religious discrimination cases end up settling before trial, and few he’s been involved with have gone to an appeal that might interest the Supreme Court.

After taking up Groff’s case, Reinach worked with local Pennsylvania attorneys to bring an initial lawsuit in federal court. The case and subsequent appeal both lost, setting up an entreaty to the Supreme Court. As the case progressed, the Christian legal organization First Liberty Institute took the lead, with attorneys from the large law firm Baker Botts LLP representing Groff pro bono. Reinach continued as a co-counsel.

After the Supreme Court appeal began, Reinach worked to help secure supportive amicus briefs from a wide range of faith groups, including from the General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. “It is time for this Court to overturn Hardison and adopt an interpretation of undue hardship consistent with this term of art’s regulatory history: that is, harm that inflicts an immense or extreme cost in relation to the employer’s overall business,” the General Conference wrote.

“We had not only a really solid cross-section of major religions and minor religions but also across the spectrum of liberal and conservative,” Reinach said. The LDS Church; Sikh, Hindu, and Muslim coalitions; and various other Christian organizations voiced support. Reinach counts supportive briefs from Americans United for Separation of Church and State and Lambda Legal, an LGBTQ advocacy organization, as the biggest coups.

When oral arguments took place on April 18, Justice Samuel Alito said he was struck by the wide range of religions who reported experiencing discrimination due to the Hardison decision. Alito also authored the final opinion, which firmly states that the de minimis cost of Hardison is not in line with the language and intent of the Civil Rights Act. “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,” Alito writes. Future cases in lower courts must look at “all relevant factors” in determining whether an employer can accommodate religious practice.

While the final decision was perhaps not surprising due to the court’s recent record of siding with religious freedom claims, the unanimous decision is notable. There also are many details still left to be tested by future cases, and time will tell exactly how the courts will judge whether accommodating religious employees costs too much for employers.

The journey is not yet over for Gerald Groff, as the decision directed lower courts to further review the details of his case. Still, it was a moment of victory. “He was thrilled,” Reinach said of speaking with Groff after the decision. “We both were thrilled. It was celebratory.”

While Adventist Church members can know that they will have stronger legal protections for Sabbath keeping going forward, Reinach also wants the church to continue its focus on fighting for religious workplace accommodations.

“My view has been that as a church, we have no right to put so much energy into evangelism and encouraging people to enjoy the blessings of rest and worship on the Sabbath if we’re not also willing to have their back if they get in trouble in the workplace,” he said.

Alex Aamodt is editor-at-large and the Roy Branson Investigative Reporter for Spectrum. You can contact him here

Title image by Mark Thomas from Pixabay.

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