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SCOTUS hears arguments about accommodating workers' religious views

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

And at the U.S. Supreme Court today, justices heard arguments in a case testing how far employers must go to accommodate the religious views of their employees. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Federal civil rights law requires employers to reasonably accommodate the religious beliefs of workers, as long as that accommodation does not impose a, quote, "undue hardship" on the employer's business. Nearly a half century ago, the Supreme Court defined an undue hardship as a substantial additional cost. But it also said that the costs need not be more than de minimis, defined in the dictionary as a trifling amount. That language has long angered religious groups of all kinds, and now they're pressing the conservative Supreme Court supermajority to overrule or modify its prior ruling.

Former postal worker Gerald Groff, an evangelical Christian, brought the case after the Postal Service signed a contract with Amazon for delivery of packages all seven days of the week. Groff was a carrier associate in rural Pennsylvania, assigned to fill in delivery gaps when more senior carriers were absent, and the new contract meant he could no longer take off every Sunday. He eventually quit his job and sued the Postal Service for violating his religious rights. At today's argument, Justice Sotomayor noted that, at Groff's small post office of three carriers, others had to pick up the burden.

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SONIA SOTOMAYOR: He was required to work Saturday, Sunday and holidays, and now he doesn't want to work half the days he was hired to work.

TOTENBERG: Justice Kavanaugh focused on the language in the court's 1977 decision that said an employer would suffer an undue hardship if a religious accommodation would impose substantial additional costs on the employer. That, he suggested, seemed to be what happened in Groff's small postal office when he refused to work Sundays or religious holidays.

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BRETT KAVANAUGH: On the facts here that you had one employee quit, one employee transfer and another employee file a grievance as a result of what Mr. Groff was receiving in terms of treatment.

TOTENBERG: Justice Kagan also stressed the significant burden on other workers when one is allowed to refuse work. And Justice Kavanaugh noted that other workers may wish to attend religious services on Sundays, too, though their religions may not require that they don't work on Sunday. Justice Alito suggested that it wouldn't cost the Postal Service that much money to pay an extra dollar an hour to hire someone else for those days. But Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, representing the Postal Service, replied that, under the union contract, premium wages are time and a half.

Replying to concerns about morale in the workforce, lawyer Aaron Streett, representing Groff, said that morale would have to be bad enough to affect the efficient operation of the business. Justice Barrett.

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AMY CONEY BARRETT: Give me an example of when the effect on coworkers would do that.

AARON STREETT: Well, when a coworker quits would be an obvious example.

CONEY BARRETT: Quits because of morale - so it's just, like, morale has to get so bad - the employer has to wait until morale is so bad that employees actually quit.

TOTENBERG: Solicitor General Prelogar conceded that the phrase de minimis in the 1977 decision was unfortunate, but she urged the court not to reverse the 46-year-old precedent, which she said has been interpreted for decades by the EEOC and the lower courts in a manner that generously accommodates the interests of religious employees. At the end of the day, it was unclear whether a majority of the court was more worried about imposing a burden on businesses and other employees or whether the court's conservatives would once again come down on the side of religious interests.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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