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Supreme Court takes up religious accommodation test

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that calls into question a 1977 precedent that addresses when employers may reject employees’ religious accommodation requests.

Under the Court’s ruling in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, an employer may reject a requested religious accommodation under Title VII if it can demonstrate that it would impose a minimal “undue” burden.

That precedent will now be reviewed as the justices have granted certiorari in a case in which a Christian letter carrier made a religious objection to delivering packages for Amazon on Sundays.

The decision is likely to affect all manners of religious accommodations in the workplace, from vacation time for religious holidays to dress codes involving religious symbols.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals cited the 1977 case when it affirmed a lower court decision against the letter carrier and ruled in favor of the employer, the U.S. Postal Service.

Similar cases have been appealed to the high court for many years, which has refused to review the issue until now.

Some legal experts expect that the court might use the case to create a rule that is more favorable to employees making religious accommodation requests.

Under Title VII, reasonable accommodations for an employee’s religious beliefs are required as long as they don’t impose an “undue hardship” on the employer.

The 1977 case defined “undue hardship” as “more than de minimis cost.” That means that employers are not mandated to accommodate an employee if it would be more than a minor burden.

The standard has led to many cases with highly fact-specific questions and courts evaluating whether a certain accommodation should be counted as an undue hardship.

Sunday deliveries

The current case involves letter carrier Gerald Groff.

In that case, the federal appeals court said that allowing Groff to skip Sunday Amazon deliveries would cause his coworkers to manage more than their fair share of the work.

The court cited evidence that the Postal Service had offered to let Groff swap Sunday shifts with other carriers and helped him find replacements.

But Groff claimed that the Postal Service disciplined him for missing work on Sundays if he couldn’t find someone to trade with him. He resigned in 2019.

On the employees’ side, some religious groups have voiced support for the court to shift to a standard that defines “undue hardship” as an “action requiring significant difficulty or expense,” with factors courts can consider in their analysis of a case. That standard is like the one for reasonable accommodation due to a disability under the ADA.