Supreme Court Hears Case on “Sabbath” Observers

Agudath Israel and other Orthodox groups joined a National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs (COLPA) brief urging the Supreme Court to provide more meaningful accommodation of religious practices for American workers.

Under federal law, an employer is required to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious practice unless that would impose an “undue hardship” on the employer.

Today, the Supreme Court of the United States had to consider what constitutes an “undue hardship,” as the Court heard the case of Groff v. DeJoy. The case involves Gerald Groff, an evangelical Christian mailman, who lost his job for refusing to work on Sunday, the day he observes as his Sabbath. Groff then sued USPS for failing to accommodate his sincerely-held religious beliefs. However, he was unsuccessful as both the district court and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against him on the basis that his absence on Sunday caused an “undue hardship” to the USPS.

These rulings were based on an earlier Supreme Court ruling in Trans World Airlines v. Hardison, in which the Court weakly defined “undue hardship” as only “more than de minimis cost,” meaning more than a “trivial burden.”

Agudath Israel and other Orthodox groups joined a National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs (COLPA) brief urging the Supreme Court to provide more meaningful accommodation of religious practices — including Sabbath observance — for American workers. The COLPA brief was authored by renowned constitutional attorney Nathan Lewin. Click here to read the brief.

The importance and effect of the Court’s receiving the views of Orthodox Jewish groups and other faith communities on the issue were highlighted during the hearing. When Solicitor General Elizabeth B. Prelogar claimed that Hardison is effective in protecting the rights of religious employees, Justice Samuel Alito pushed back, stating “We have amicus briefs here by many representatives of many minority religions — Muslims, Hindus, Orthodox Jews, Seventh-day Adventists — and they all say that that is just not true and that Hardison has violated their right to religious liberty.”

“Agudath Israel receives countless calls from people around the country who have lost their jobs or were unable to take a job because of their Sabbath observance,” said Rabbi A.D Motzen, Agudath Israel’s national director of government affairs.

“It is gratifying and important that both sides in the Groff case agreed that the Hardison de minimis standard is misleading and unhelpful. It should accordingly not be relied on for future resolution of religious accommodation requests,” said Nathan Lewin. “This will be exceedingly important for Sabbath observance and other religious needs of Jewish employees. It will support not only complaints they might file in courts or in the EEOC but in the give-and-take of non-litigated employee requests. It is often the case that an employer’s lawyer cites the Hardison standard to reject a reasonable request and the employee fails to challenge that opinion. If the Court now formally discards that test, it will make a big difference.”

“The “more than de minimis” standard has proven to be the key obstacle to providing the protection the law offered. The standard is so low that employers don’t even bother trying to accommodate the employees, and employees don’t bother asserting their rights, knowing that they would suffer aggravation and expense in a losing case. This cannot be what Congress desired or intended when it sought to protect the rights of religiously observant employees. Indeed, because of the “more than de minimis” standard, the law has never lived up to its promise,” said Rabbi Abba Cohen, Agudath Israel’s vice president for government affairs and Washington director and counsel.

“I hope that a majority of the Court also issues a decision that equates the duty to make a religious accommodation with the legal duty to make accommodations for other situations in which co-workers may be affected, such as accommodations for people with disabilities prescribed by federal law,” added Nathan Lewin. “It is time for the Court to recognize that the free exercise of religion protected by the First Amendment requires no less. Recent Supreme Court decisions demonstrate that the religious exercise of one person may not be rejected because of the now-obsolete concern that it might amount to Establishment of Religion.”

“The history of American Jewry cannot be told without marking the struggle for Sabbath observance,” said Rabbi David Zwiebel, Agudah’s executive vice president. “Due to Hardison, countless people have given up or even lost employment opportunities for jobs for which they were eminently qualified. Most of these cases were not even litigated because of the high bar set by Hardison. By hearing this case the Supreme Court has taken one step forward to rectifying this and protecting the religious liberties of Americans in the workforce.”

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