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Gerald Groff is an Evangelical Christian who believes for religious reasons that Sunday should be devoted to worship and rest.

In 2012, Groff took a mail delivery job with the United States Postal Service. Groff’s position generally did not involve Sunday work, but that changed after USPS agreed to begin facilitating Sunday deliveries for Amazon. To avoid the requirement to work Sundays on a rotating basis, Groff transferred to a rural USPS station that did not make Sunday deliveries.

After Amazon deliveries began at that station as well, Groff remained unwilling to work Sundays, and USPS redistributed Groff’s Sunday deliveries to other USPS staff. Groff received “progressive discipline” for failing to work on Sundays, and he eventually resigned.

Groff sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, asserting that USPS could have accommodated his Sunday Sabbath practice without undue hardship on the conduct of USPS’s business. 42 U. S. C. §2000e(j).

The District Court granted summary judgment in favor USPS. The Third Circuit affirmed based on this Court’s decision in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U. S. 63, which it construed to mean “that requiring an employer ‘to bear more than a de minimis cost’ to provide a religious accommodation is an undue hardship.” 35 F. 4th 162, 174, n. 18 (quoting 432 U. S., at 84). The Third Circuit found the de minimis cost standard met here, concluding that exempting Groff from Sunday work had “imposed on his coworkers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale.”

The United States Supreme Court reversed in the case of Groff v DeJoy Postmaster General, – No. 22-174 (June 2023).

SCOTUS began it’s Opinion by noting “This case presents the Court’s first opportunity in nearly 50 years to explain the contours of Hardison. The background of that decision helps to explain the Court’s disposition of this case.”

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it unlawful for covered employers “to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges [of] employment,because of such individual’s . . . religion.

As originally enacted, Title VII did not spell out what it meant by discrimination “because of . . . religion.” Subsequent regulations issued by the EEOC obligated employers “to make reasonable accommodations to the religious needs of employees” whenever doing so would not create “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” 29 CFR §1605.1 (1968).

Hardison concerned an employment dispute that arose prior to the 1972 amendments to Title VII. In 1967, Trans World Airlines hired Larry Hardison to work in a department that operated “24 hours per day, 365 days per year” and played an “essential role” for TWA by providing parts needed to repair and maintain aircraft. Hardison later underwent a religious conversion and began missing work to observe the Sabbath. Attempts at accommodation failed, and TWA discharged Hardison for insubordination.

Hardison sued TWA and his union, and the Eighth Circuit sided with Hardison. The Eighth Circuit found that reasonable accommodations were available to TWA.

Applying this interpretation of Title VII and disagreeing with the Eighth Circuit’s evaluation of the factual record, the Court identified no way in which TWA, without violating seniority rights, could have feasibly accommodated Hardison’s request for an exemption from work on his Sabbath.

However, the parties in Hardison had not focused on determining when increased costs amount to “undue hardship” under Title VII separately from the seniority issue. But the Court’s opinion in Hardison contained this oft-quoted sentence: “To require TWA to bear more than a de minimis cost in order to give Hardison Saturdays off is an undue hardship.” Subsequently, “lower courts have latched on to ‘de minimis’ as the governing standard.”

Returning to the Groff case, SCOTUS concluded “that showing “more than a de minimis cost,” as that phrase is used in common parlance, does not suffice to establish “undue hardship” under Title VII. Hardison cannot be reduced to that one phrase. In describing an employer’s “undue hardship” defense, Hardison referred repeatedly to “substantial” burdens, and that formulation better explains the decision. The Court understands Hardison to mean that “undue hardship” is shown when a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business. This fact-specific inquiry comports with both Hardison and the meaning of “undue hardship” in ordinary speech.

Hence “Title VII requires an employer that denies a religious accommodation to show that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.”