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Supreme Court to hear case on religious accommodations in the workplace

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in Groff v. DeJoy, a case that puts the issue of religious liberty front and center at the high court. It asks an important question - what kind of religious accommodation are employers reasonably expected to provide for their workers? Here to explain more about the case and its possible implications is Amy Howe. She's a longtime Supreme Court watcher who is a former editor and reporter for SCOTUSblog, and she currently blogs at Howe On The Court. Amy Howe, welcome.

AMY HOWE: Thanks so much for having me.

NADWORNY: So before we dive into the case details, can you briefly just tell us the story behind this case and the central question?

HOWE: Sure. So the plaintiff in this case is a man named Gerald Groff, who lives in Pennsylvania. He is an evangelical Christian. He believes that Sundays should be a day of rest and worship, so he doesn't want to work on Sundays. He went to work for the U.S. Postal Service in 2012, and his desire not to work on Sundays was initially not a problem. But it became a problem later, including after the Postal Service signed a contract to deliver Amazon packages. And so he would not work on Sundays. They needed him to work on Sundays, and so he was disciplined and eventually quit before he could be fired, he says.

And so he went to federal court in Pennsylvania arguing that the Postal Service had violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires an employer to reasonably accommodate an employee's religious beliefs and practices, as long as doing so does not create an undue hardship on the conduct of the employer's business. And so the question in this case is, what does it mean to be an undue hardship? The Supreme Court has actually already answered this question in 1977, in a case called TWA v. Hardison. The Supreme Court said that an undue hardship is anything that imposes more than a trivial or minimal cost to the employer. And so Groff is asking the justices to overrule that decision.

NADWORNY: What is Gerald Groff's argument here?

HOWE: One of them is simply that the court in 1977 got it wrong. He says when you look at the phrase undue hardship, that signal something that is more than just a trivial or minimal cost and that it's currently such a low bar that workers are effectively required to choose between their religion and their job. And then there's another question in the case that when you're talking about what it means to measure what an undue hardship is, what does the employer have to show about where the burden falls? Is it on the business itself or is it on his coworkers?

NADWORNY: And what about the federal government? What's their core argument?

HOWE: So they say this interpretation of the federal law has been in place since 1977. They say if Congress wanted to change this law, it could have. And so it's important to note here that this is different from, say, the Dobbs decision last term - I'm sure many of your listeners are familiar with it - in which the Supreme Court overturned the right to an abortion because that involves an interpretation of the Constitution, which only the Supreme Court can do. But here, when the Supreme Court is interpreting a federal law, the federal government says Congress can change it...

NADWORNY: Right.

HOWE: ...And it hasn't done so.

NADWORNY: Recent religious freedom rulings by the Supreme Court have been met with criticism. I'm thinking about the Hobby Lobby decision, which ruled that some companies don't have to provide contraception to employees if it violates the company owner's faith. And there are cases where religious liberty is at odds with other rights, like LGBTQ rights. Have there been similar conversations among court watchers regarding this case?

HOWE: This is an interesting case because it's not necessarily one in which - if you look at the friend of the court briefs filed - necessarily break down on conservative-liberal lines. There are a wide range of religious groups who support Groff. You have, you know, Sikh and Muslim and Seventh Day Adventists and Jewish groups. And they say that religious minorities are actually the most likely to need accommodations at work, even though this is a case involving an evangelical Christian. But at the same time, those religious minorities are less likely to get the accommodations that they need because the bar is so low for employees.

But then on the other hand, there's a brief from local governments who say we are the country's largest employer, and we want to be able to accommodate our employees' religious practices, but we can't always do so because we have budget constraints. And if you raise the bar, you know, we may have to cut back on the services we provide - so a little more complicated than some of the other cases that tend to divide on just more sort of conservative-liberal lines.

NADWORNY: Yeah. OK, before we let you go, I'd like to ask you about the recent revelations involving Justice Clarence Thomas. So earlier this month, ProPublica, the investigative news outlet, reported that for decades, Justice Thomas had accepted undisclosed gifts from billionaire Republican donor Harlan Crow. This includes flights on his private jet, trips on a yacht. Just this past week, it was reported that Crow purchased a property from Justice Thomas in 2014, which also was not disclosed. How has this news landed in the court? I mean, any sense of how people who work there are feeling about this kind of exposure?

HOWE: There is no sense yet. Justice Thomas released a statement in response to the first story by ProPublica, but he hasn't released a statement in response to the second story. I think, you know, we may not necessarily see any effects from the outside right away. The Supreme Court will be hearing arguments this week and next week, and then they're mostly going to be operating behind closed doors except for issuing opinions between now and the end of June. But I certainly think it has to be a distraction and unwanted attention for the court that none of the justices welcome.

NADWORNY: That's Amy Howe, former editor and reporter for SCOTUSblog, who now writes at Howe On The Court. Amy, thank you so much for joining us.

HOWE: Thanks for inviting me.

(SOUNDBITE OF AVERY PALM'S "REATTACHMENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.