The Supreme Court seems intent on expanding workers’ right to take time off

On Friday, the Supreme Court agreed to rule on extending the federal civil rights law to protect workers seeking leave to practice religious services.

The justices voted to hear an appeal from a former US postal worker and evangelical Christian who was disciplined and eventually resigned because he refused to deliver packages on Sundays.

His case highlighted a long-running dispute over whether employers should “reasonably accommodate” an employee’s religious observance or might instead refuse if doing so would constitute even a minor hardship for their business.

In the case of postal worker Gerald Grove, his supervisors said it was difficult to find other employees who could cover Sunday shipments for Amazon in his rural community near Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

He sued, claiming religious discrimination, but lost to a federal judge and in a 2-1 decision of the Third Circuit Court in Philadelphia, which agreed that the employer was having difficulty.

But conservatives in court have indicated that they are ready to reconsider the law in this area and correct what they see as a wrong turn taken in the 1970s. They said they agreed with the leading liberals of the era—Justices Thurgood Marshall and William J. Brennan – who then criticized Majority for “crying” Congress’s protections for religious freedom in the workplace.

The court said it would hear Grove v. DeJoy in April and issue a ruling by late June.

The case could bring together liberal and conservative justices. The verdict in the case will cover other aspects of religious observances, including the wearing of scarves, turbans or beards while at work. Lawyers representing Sikhs, Muslims, Jews and Seventh-day Adventists joined in supporting the appeal and urged the court to restore strong protections for religious freedom.

The legal dispute is not over First Amendment protections for the “free exercise of religion” but rather over workers’ rights.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited public and private employers from discriminating on the basis of race, religion, sex, or national origin. In 1972, Congress expanded these protections to “all aspects of religious rites and practices, as well as belief.” A worker’s claim of discrimination should prevail, the law said, “unless the employer can demonstrate that it is unable to reasonably accommodate the employee’s or prospective employee’s religious rites or practices without undue hardship over the employer’s conduct.”

However, in its first major ruling on this provision, the Supreme Court mitigated that ruling in 1977 by saying that the law did not tilt in favor of religion or place burdens on employers. They were not required to change the work schedules of “some employees in order to enable others to observe the Sabbath,” the judges ruled in TWA vs. Hardison.

In this case, Larry Hardison was a maintenance clerk at Kansas City Airport. He was a member of the Worldwide Church of God and refused to work on Saturdays, but was willing to work night shifts and other odd times. However, both his union and the TWA objected to asking others to work in his place on Saturdays, and he was fired.

“To ask TWA to bear more than the minimum cost in order to award Hardison Saturdays is an undue hardship,” the court said in its 7-2 decision.

In his dissent, Marshall wrote, “Today’s outcome is intolerable, because the Court espouses the same position that Congress expressly rejected in 1972,” leaving employees “the cruel choice of forfeiting their religion or their job.”

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