WASHINGTON, D.C., June 29, 2023 – In a unanimous opinion announced today, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of Gerald Groff, a pro bono client of Baker Botts, resolving important questions of religious liberty in the employment context. The case was led on appeal by partner Aaron Streett, chair of Baker Botts’ Supreme Court and Constitutional Law Practice.
The Supreme Court clarified that under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, employers must accommodate an employee’s religious practice or belief unless doing so would impose a “substantial cost” on the conduct of the business. The Court rejected the rulings of lower courts that allowed employers to deny religious accommodations whenever they would have a “more than de minimis”—or minimal—effect on coworkers or the business.
“This is an important victory for Americans of all faiths, who may now follow their religious consciences in the workplace,” said Aaron Streett. It is especially gratifying that the Court was unanimous in interpreting the Civil Rights Act according to its plain language, holding that employers must accommodate religious practices absent an ‘undue hardship’ on the ‘conduct of the business.’”
Baker Botts joined the case in mid-2021 after a district court entered summary judgment against Mr. Groff, a mail carrier who has a religious belief that Sunday should be a Sabbath day of rest. After initially accommodating Mr. Groff by scheduling him on Saturdays and holidays, but not Sundays, the USPS discontinued his accommodation and then disciplined him when he stood by his conscience and refused to work on scheduled Sundays.
A 1977 Supreme Court decision in Trans World Airlines v. Hardison contained language that lower courts have read to strictly limit an employer’s duty to provide religious accommodations under the Civil Rights Act. Under Hardison, an employer can refuse an accommodation so long as it would impose a “more than de minimis cost” on the employer. As Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote in his Hardison dissent, the de minimis test is an egregious misinterpretation of the statutory language, which requires reasonable accommodations absent “undue hardship.”
Under the de minimis test, employers regularly deny religious accommodations, including those that would impose very little cost, such as allowing religious attire or adjusting weekly scheduling to allow synagogue, mosque or church attendance. Amicus briefs from a wide array of faith groups supporting Mr. Groff showed that the burdens of the de minimis test fall most heavily on religious minorities and blue-collar workers.
On appeal in the Groff case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that accommodating Mr. Groff would impose on his co-workers by forcing them to work more Sundays, and therefore, the USPS established undue hardship under Hardison.
Baker Botts was brought in to the case by First Liberty Institute, a leading public-interest firm that focuses exclusively on religious-liberty litigation. Baker Botts has handled many cases with First Liberty, including representing historic African American churches in Houston’s Fifth Ward, synagogues fighting onerous zoning restrictions in Dallas and veterans organizations defending religiously themed war memorials before the U.S. Supreme Court. Additional co-counsel for Mr. Groff included the Church State Council and the Independence Law Center.
In addition to Mr. Streett, other members of the Baker Botts team included Mark Little and Christopher Tutunjian.
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