SCOTUS Punts Religious Accommodations Issue

The central question remains unresolved.

NPR (“The Supreme Court rules against USPS in Sunday work case“):

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously handed a major victory to religious groups by greatly expanding how far employers must go to accommodate the religious views of their employees.

The court ruled in favor of Gerald Groff, an evangelical Christian postal worker, who refused to work on Sundays for religious reasons and said the U.S. Postal Service should accommodate his religious belief. He sued USPS for religious discrimination when he got in trouble for refusing to work Sunday shifts.

The case now returns to the lower courts.

The justices clarified law that made it illegal for employers to discriminate based on religion, requiring that they accommodate the religious beliefs of workers as long as the accommodation does not impose an “undue hardship on the employer’s business.” The court had previously defined the statutory term “undue hardship” by saying that employers should not have to bear more than what the court called a “de minimis,” or trifling, cost.

That “de minimis” language has sparked a lot of criticism over the years. But Congress has repeatedly rejected proposals to provide greater accommodations for religious observers, including those who object to working on the Sabbath.

On Thursday, writing for the court, Justice Samuel Alito said the hardship must be more than minimal.

Courts “should resolve whether a hardship would be substantial in the context of an employer’s business in the commonsense manner that it would use in applying any such test,” he wrote.

Thursday’s decision is yet another example of the court’s increasing inclination to favor religiously observant groups, whether those groups are religious employers or religious employees.

For instance, the court has repeatedly sided with religious schools to be exempt from employment discrimination laws as applied to lay teachers. And in 2014, the conservative court ruled for the first time that a for-profit company could be exempt from a generally applicable federal law. Specifically, it ruled that Hobby Lobby, a closely held corporation employing some 13,000 employees, did not have to comply with a federal law that required employer-funded health plans to include coverage for contraceptive devices.

SCOTUSBlog’s Amy Howe (“Justices rule in favor of evangelical Christian postal worker“):

Federal law bars employers from discriminating against workers for practicing their religion unless the employer can show that the worker’s religious practice cannot “reasonably” be accommodated without “undue hardship.” The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that a trivial burden is not the kind of “undue hardship” that will justify an employer’s failure to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs. Instead, the court explained, an employer must accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs unless it can show that doing so would “result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of” the employer’s business.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote for a unanimous court. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a concurring opinion, which was joined by Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.

The ruling was largely a victory for the plaintiff in the case, Gerald Groff. Groff, an evangelical Christian who believes that Sundays should be reserved for rest and worship. Groff began working for the U.S. Postal Service in 2012, but he was disciplined after he refused to come to work on Sundays and he resigned in 2019. Groff had urged the court to overturn Trans World Airlines v. Hardison, a 1977 decision on the meaning of the “undue hardship” provision. Instead, Groff contended, the justices should hold that employers must accommodate their employees’ religious practices unless doing so would require significant difficulty and expense. The justices declined either to reconsider their earlier ruling or adopt that high bar, but they sent Groff’s case back to the lower court for another look under the standard they outlined on Thursday.

In a 21-page opinion, Alito explained that although lower courts since Hardison have interpreted the phrase “undue hardship” to mean “any effort or cost that is ‘more than … de minimis,’” that interpretation is “a mistake.” The court’s decision in Hardison, Alito observed, focused primarily on whether federal employment discrimination laws required the airline and the union to accommodate an employee’s religious practices at the expense of the seniority rights of more senior employees.

The question of when additional costs constitute an “undue hardship” received relatively little attention, Alito stressed. So, although the court’s opinion in Hardison indicated that it would be an “undue hardship” to require the airline to “bear more than a de minimis cost in order to give Hardison Saturdays off” to observe the Sabbath, that language, Alito reasoned, was not necessarily intended as an “authoritative interpretation” of what it means for something to be an “undue hardship.” To the contrary, Alito noted, elsewhere in Hardison the court indicated “three times that an accommodation is not required when it entails ‘substantial’ ‘costs’ or ‘expenditures.’”

A more demanding standard, Alito added, is also more consistent with the text of the phrase “undue hardship.” The term “hardship,” Alito wrote, “is more severe than a mere burden.” And if the hardship is “undue,” Alito continued, it must be “excessive” or “unjustifiable” – which is something “very different from a burden that is merely more than de minimis, i.e., something that is ‘very small or trifling.’”

Alito rejected both Groff’s suggestion that the employer must accommodate the employee’s religious practices unless the employer would incur significant difficulty or expense and the Biden administration’s suggestion, which focused on the “substantial expenditures” or “substantial additional costs” that the employer would incur. Instead, Alito concluded, “it is enough to say that an employer must show that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.”

Alito then sent Groff’s case back to the lower courts for more proceedings. Because the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit had relied on the “more than de minimis cost” standard, he wrote, it may have overlooked other possible accommodations, such as “the cost of incentive pay, or the administrative costs of coordination with other nearby stations with a broader set of employees.” The lower courts, he indicated, should apply “the clarified context-specific standard” that the court had outlined on Thursday.

Sotomayor, joined by Jackson, wrote separately to note that although Groff had asked the justices to hold that the employer must show “undue hardship to its business” from accommodating an employee’s religious practices, the court on Thursday had indicated only that the employer must show “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business” – which, Sotomayor emphasized, could include burdens on the business’s employees. “Indeed,” Sotomayor stressed, “for many businesses, labor is more important to the conduct of the business than any other factor.”

I examined the merits of the case back in January (“Religious Accommodations and Slippery Slopes“) and won’t substantially rehash that here. The nut ‘graph:

In the grand scheme of things, it’s not unreasonable to give a man Sundays off. Why, most of us typically get Sundays off! But Groff is specifically in a job designed to fill in on weekends—of which there are only two days!—and holidays. Giving him half of the days off is, well, problematic. And not just for his managers. Somebody else now has to suck up the Sunday shifts. And there are only three others who can do it, including the Postmaster himself!

Seeing the headlines yesterday afternoon and this morning, I had come away with the impression that the justices had ruled that this level of accommodation was required. Given the trajectory of their recent Free Exercise Clause rulings, I had expected that outcome. Yet, that’s not what happened here. Instead, they punted this back to the lower court with instructions that standard they applied was too weak and that they should consider the tradeoffs in a “commonsense manner.”

That . . . seems right to me. Indeed, in the case of a government institution like the US Postal Service, I think the standard Groff himself was requesting, “undue hardship,” is reasonable. I just think that, given the facts of the case, giving one of three employees hired explicitly to work weekends half the weekend off constituted an undue hardship. I fully expect the lower court to reach the same conclusion.

I haven’t taken the time to closely read the opinions themselves beyond the “Held” section. I find it interesting that the justices unanimously agreed that the de minimus standard was too weak. Indeed, the opinion essentially says that that phrase in Hardison was never meant to be a guiding principle and that, instead, the language in Title VII should be the guide. We’ll see what they do with the case if it comes back up—which, again, I fully expect will happen.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Supreme Court, , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Daryl says:

    JFC…the job requires working on Sundays…if you don’t want to, go find another job.
    Why must our laws accommodate peoples silly superstitions?

  2. KM says:

    If your faith is so important to you that you must sue to be able to practice it, you should be taking it into account when you make life decisions such as your career. The assertion being God is more important then a paycheck should also carry the corollary that sometimes you need to forgo the paycheck to please God. The sacrifice is supposed to be on *your* side to please the Almighty with your devotion, not on the employers side so you can still make bank.

    If you pick a job that can and does operate on Sundays (or any religiously observed day off), you are taking the risk you may need to work that day. What happens if one of your co-workers has maternity leave, another needs to go on disability, etc and it leaves you as the sole person to work? If you are the only one working that can dispense a drug you object to, why do you get to decide a stranger’s medical care without consent, especially as you have not examined the patient nor know their medical history? You may have a customer ask you for an common item or service you provide that you object to providing to them specifically – why take the job when you know that scenario is going to come up? Religious accommodations miss the point that if you are in a job that requires you to “sin” according to your faith/ beliefs maybe you shouldn’t be working that job. Religious objections to military service at least make sense – they want to peace out of the deal and acknowledge they cannot do the job as needed. Accommodations want the benefits of the job like the money but not the actual work; “pay me to do nothing and inconvenience others” presented as a Godly sentiment.

  3. gVOR10 says:

    There may be a legit issue here unmentioned above, which is that USPS hired the guy before they started doing Sunday delivery for Amazon, so it represented a change in his terms of employment. But I don’t see that the justices mentioned that either. And a question – does this have any effect in “at will” states?

    Otherwise they’ve “clarified” that they must make some accommodation above “de minimus” but below “undue hardship”. It apparently takes our finest legal minds to come up with this stuff. Lesser legal scholars wouldn’t be able to keep a straight face.

  4. MarkedMan says:

    Okay, here’s where I put my-cranky-old-man dial to 11. Nothing chaps my ass more than the “I’m a pharmacist but it violates my religious freedom if I can’t decide whether patients meet my moral criteria before I do my job” rulings.

  5. Michael Cain says:


    Accommodations want the benefits of the job like the money but not the actual work; “pay me to do nothing and inconvenience others” presented as a Godly sentiment.

    I’m too lazy today to go hunting details. Did the plaintiff demand to be paid for Sundays they didn’t work, or did they demand to not be scheduled for Sundays? I’ve been assuming the latter. The SCOTUS sent this back to the trial court; my expectation is that court will hold that even under the new standard the burden is excessive.

  6. Modulo Myself says:

    Must have been very hard for this Supreme Court to accommodate two things they love so dearly—employers fucking over employees and the theocracy fucking over secular society. Real dark night of the soul for these freaks….

  7. James Joyner says:

    @Modulo Myself: While I’ve disagreed with most of these rulings, it’s noteworthy that this one was 9-0.

  8. steve says:

    I dont think this is an awful decision but it might make it a bit more difficult for employers. Under the de minimus standard even if you have tons of employees who are willing to work Sundays rather than Saturdays it’s still a scheduling hassle and easier to just equally divide both days of the weekend. So if all it takes is a bit more scheduling work to accommodate I think that’s reasonable. (When I was a resident you were off the day after taking call. Taking call on Saturday meant you were off Sunday, a normal day off. People much preferred to work Sundays when you got a normal working day off, Monday. For some jobs you may have to work pretty hard on a Saturday and Sunday could be pretty light so people might prefer Sunday.)

    In this particular case with facts as presented it’s hard to believe that it does not present a real burden to the other workers. What really happens at most places that have weekend work is that it gets divided up pretty equally and workers swap around if allowed. If he couldn’t swap it suggests that working Sundays was a burden, he was an ass or both.


  9. KM says:

    @Michael Cain:
    Demanding to not be scheduled on Sundays all the time is effectively demanding someone else do your work for you, resulting in a measurable cost. If he’s salaried, he’s expecting a free day without work to be guaranteed.

    From what I understand, he didn’t want to work Sundays so he went to a rural location with less then 5 workers to avoid it. Now that Sunday work is a thing he can’t transfer away from, he’s now expecting his coworkers to take up the burden with no change to him. In other words, he expecting to do less work then his peers for the same pay. The volume of work over the course of the week now needs to be distributed among a smaller group, increasing the burden without increasing the pay. Unless the coworkers are being compensated for working weekends constantly, *their* terms of employment and scheduling have been changed against their will.

  10. KM says:


    he was an ass or both

    Honestly, if I was his coworker I’d be pushing the whole office to put in for Sunday religious exemptions. What happens when all 5 people claim God says I need the day off? Wonder if that would have affected the results……

  11. charontwo says:

    What happens when all 5 people claim God says I need the day off?

    They would need to show “sincerely held” belief, might not be so easy.

  12. KM says:

    Eh, with this court? The only one who will have trouble is the last one to submit – they’ll get the strict scrutiny because they’re left holding the bag. But hey, film the group of you going into a church a couple of times and submit it as “proof” then bail and go out for drinks. What if your personal belief is that services are being padded and you only need to attend for the important parts, hmmm?

    “Sincerely held” needs to be challenged anyways otherwise anyone could do as I suggested and shut it all down. Might as well take advantage of it since you know they will…..

  13. Scott says:


    They would need to show “sincerely held” belief, might not be so easy.

    The moment that anyone challenges the authenticity of someone’s “sincerely held religious belief” is the moment this whole edifice collapses.

  14. Jay L Gischer says:


    There may be a legit issue here unmentioned above, which is that USPS hired the guy before they started doing Sunday delivery for Amazon, so it represented a change in his terms of employment.

    I gotta say yeah, this changes my opinion on the matter considerably. He took the job thinking it wouldn’t impact his Sundays, and then the employer changed the terms and schedule. I mean, yeah, he could still quit, but it feels a bit different to me.

    So the court is saying to employers that they need to use a higher standard – a standard that says “this will give other employees or the employer a significant burden” to justify firing someone after changing the conditions of work.

    Honestly, I’m all for that.

    I mean, if I had taken a job saying “I need Sundays off to care for my schizophrenic nephew” and the employer had then said, “That’s no problem” but now says, “Hey we’re working Sundays now, play along!” I’d be mad.

    The religious component of this is kind of a red herring, really.

  15. gVOR10 says:


    The moment that anyone challenges the authenticity of someone’s “sincerely held religious belief” is the moment this whole edifice collapses.

    Actually. I think that’s the whole point. I think they’re setting up to ban all public health mandates on the grounds of, “I donwanna.” Why the liberals went along with this escapes me.

  16. MarkedMan says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    He took the job thinking it wouldn’t impact his Sundays, and then the employer changed the terms and schedule.

    Sure. As happens all the time. Business changes and you need your employees to change with it. Some of them can’t, and that is unfortunate bit the company isn’t obligated to keep their business unchanged simply to make sure an employee can keep their job. Unless, according to this court, the employee says “Jesus!”a lot

  17. DK says:


    Okay, here’s where I put my-cranky-old-man dial to 11.

    Justified. Nigel Tufnel says turn it up to 12.

  18. MarkedMan says:

    @Jay L Gischer: a standard that says “this will give other employees or the employer a significant burden” to justify firing someone after changing the conditions of work.

    I meant to add in my comment above is that I don’t think that’s what happened here. Employers are still free to change conditions of work (it would be a monumental change otherwise) except if it involves an employees Jesus time.

  19. DK says:


    Why the liberals went along with this escapes me.

    I think the decision may be narrower than “I’m cherry-picking from my Bible to refuse to work on Sundays” and is more like “I took this job thinking I would not have to work on Sundays as per my religious beliefs, so when my employer changes my hours they should accommodate that.”

    It’s complicated and a headache, and why a sane SCOTUS would have deferred to the lower courts and not taken the case at all. But here we are.

  20. KM says:

    @Jay L Gischer:
    Understandable but that once again shifts the burden to others who might *also* have issues or concerns.

    How fair is it to people who have asked for schedules based on their own needs to have them forcibly changed because someone else invoked God as the excuse? Let’s use your example: “I need Sundays off to care for my schizophrenic nephew” was the working understanding till someone else comes in and goes “I want to go to church on Sunday and you need to respect my faith first!” Now what? Are you forced to work and have to find care for your nephew to satisfy religious accommodations even though you had asked first? What about the parents who have split custody – can work force them to work on the one weekend a month you legally have the kids so church guy gets time off?

    What this does is place religious accommodations ahead of other considerations when there are more pressing concerns. It increases resentment in those who will get stuck with the shifts on the regular when it may have been more evenly spread out. It’s going to cause abuse of the concept as people start realizing you can’t “prove” religious beliefs and they have to accommodate you or be sued in a court extremely favorable to religion. If you can’t get the time to care for your nephew that you were promised, what’s to stop you from claiming religious accommodations under less then honest circumstances to get the time? How about claiming you need to take the kids to church for *their* religious needs so you need every Sunday off as a good caretaker?

  21. steve says:

    “They would need to show “sincerely held” belief, might not be so easy.”

    When we went through this with covid legal counsel said people did not have to prove the sincerity of their belief. The most obscene, profane guy working for me, finally had to let him go, made the religious claim and we had to honor it.

    Jay- I think it’s OK to feel a bit more sorry for the guy but the change affected everyone else too. Jobs change. He needed to share the burden, get others to voluntarily swap or quit.


  22. Jay L Gischer says:

    @KM: It doesn’t seem to me that the decision says “Ignore any and all impact on other employees”. It says, it seems to me, more like, “the impact and harm on the business and other employees has to be substantive to some level, and the burden is on you to prove that it is.”

    I mean, employers can be pretty darn capricious about these things if they can get away with it. Managers can, and sometimes do, make decisions based on “what’s good for me” rather than “what’s good for the business”.

    In this case, it seems that when the employer expanded operating hours, they were going to need to hire new people. It’s possible that they could have hired the new people to work only on Sundays. Or at least looked for someone to do that. There are many ways to staff the increased load, and only some of them would have adverse impact on the plaintiff.

    So yeah, I think they (the employer) needs to show that those other ways of staffing placed an undue burden on the business or the other employees.

    I don’t think “I don’t want to keep track of who works what days, or what promises we have made” cuts it as “undue burden”. A single spreadsheet would handle this just fine. Maybe there are other issues, but they need to show them.

  23. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    To the extent that I recall the case, as one post above noted, his problem came up because Amazon contracted with the Post Office to make deliveries in a region in which they were unwilling to do them on Sundays. With the change in working conditions, it seems to me that he had two choices–he could work on Sunday also or decide that he no longer met the requirements for the job and resign. Modern American interpretations of “equal protection under the law” seemed to afford a way to have his cake and eat it too. Another win for “religious freedumb.”

    From a theological standpoint, Christianity holds that the only rights people have are the right to be punished for their sins and whatever rights the state may decide to grant them. On the other hand, if he “sincerely believes” that he should not work on the Sabbath–or more correctly “the Lord’s Day, as “the Sabbath” still specifically falls on Saturday–he also needs to “sincerely believer” that God has a better situation for him than violating his “sincerely held beliefs” and/or running to teh gubmint for relief. In such a case, option 2–realizing that the Lord who gave him this job has now taken it away (blessed be the name of the Lord) and he should graciously leave it behind–seeking new opportunity the Lord will provide diligently.

    That’s why it’s called “faith” and not “civil rights.”

  24. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    I gotta say yeah, this changes my opinion on the matter considerably. He took the job thinking it wouldn’t impact his Sundays, and then the employer changed the terms and schedule. I mean, yeah, he could still quit, but it feels a bit different to me.

    I’ll raise: I think that the employer probably has the right to say to this adjunct-hire extra worker “Oh no, it seems that you no longer meet the requirements for the job given that you can’t work Sundays. If that situation has changed, we’re happy to keep you on, but if it hasn’t, we need to hire someone who can work both days and will need to let you go.”

  25. anjin-san says:

    Can I say eating meat in the break room is forbidden because it’s against my beliefs?

  26. JohnSF says:

    As a pagan cultist of Aergia, the goddess of idleness, I have repeatedly requested our HR department to allow me to take the whole week off for my slothful devotions.
    For some reason, my line manager keeps telling me to stop being such an annoying, lazy smartarse.
    Why am I so persecuted?

  27. JohnSF says:

    Actually, in UK and a lot of other European countries, time off on Sunday is a statutory right.
    Which develops legal complications when Jewish and Muslim persons request similar privileges.
    Recently asked a Sikh what their opinion was on the matter. Answer: “Who cares? I just want two days off in a row.”

  28. al Ameda says:

    Perhaps I’m a bit cynical but ….

    I cannot help but think that Court conservatives punted this one because they knew that they would be taking heat over the gay website religious belief public accomodation and affirmative action decisions, and they decided to let the lower courts deal with it for a while. It will be back.