An Upcoming Supreme Court Case Could Make It Easier for Americans to Keep Shabbat

January 27, 2023 | Michael A. Helfand
About the author: Michael A. Helfand is an associate professor at Pepperdine University School of Law and associate director of Pepperdine’s Diane and Guilford Glazer Institute for Jewish Studies.

The Supreme Court recently announced that it will hear the case of Groff v. DeJoy, regarding a postal worker who wishes to avoid Sunday shifts because of his observance of the Christian Sabbath. Michael A. Helfand explains:

Employers’ obligation to accommodate employees’ religious practice derives from Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Because the original text of Title VII provided limited guidance in terms of what kind of protections it afforded employees from religious discrimination, Congress subsequently amended Title VII in order to make clear that employers [must] “reasonably accommodate” an employee’s “religious observance or practice” unless, and here is the kicker, providing an accommodation would present an “undue hardship.”

In the similar 1977 case of TWA v. Hardison, the court ruled that any additional cost to an employer would constitute such an undue hardship. Helfand hopes the current court will take the opportunity to reconsider this narrow interpretation:

Among the problems with [the] prevailing standard is that those left most exposed by the court’s stingy interpretation of Title VII have been religious minorities, whose practices often don’t track the prevailing rhythms of the workplace. According to one brief filed before the Supreme Court in 2020, nearly half of Title VII accommodation appeals are filed by religious minorities, even though those minorities only account for 15 percent of the population.

Unsurprisingly, American Jews have been at the forefront of attempts to enhance the protections afforded religious employees in the workplace, as diluting employers’ obligation to accommodate religious practices in the workplace continues to present a significant obstacle to Shabbat observance. Already back in 1977, a broad coalition of Jewish organizations filed amicus briefs before the Supreme Court supporting the plaintiff in Hardison. . . . In subsequent decades, a diverse range of Jewish organizations have supported the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, an ultimately unsuccessful attempt since 1999 to expand the religious-accommodation protections afforded employees in the workplace.

Read more on Forward: