March 5, 2022:- In April, the Supreme Court of the United States will hear oral argument in a case that may have a big impact on religious-discrimination lawsuits here in Massachusetts.
The case is Gerald E. Groff v. Louis DeJoy, Postmaster General, United States Postal Service, (here’s a link to Mr. Groff’s petition for certiorari) and a handy place to find the filings (including the amicus briefs) is scotusblog.com. For Professor Josh Blackman’s short overview in Reason magazine, click here and for Professor Eugene Volokh’s take in the same publication click here.
If the court rules the way I hope it does, we will have more cause than usual to give thanks. Either way, I will let you know.
At issue is the question of what constitutes “undue hardship” for an employer when an employee asks for an exemption to a workplace rule on the basis of religious belief. You may be familiar with this term already, but you may not realize that in this area of law it means much less than it should. To help explain how judges interpret the term right now – and how they may start to interpret it differently after the Supreme Court’s decision in Groff – let’s compare religious discrimination in employment to disability discrimination in housing.
Emotional Support Animals
Imagine a landlord with a no-pets policy in one particular building, and a tenant who signs the lease, agrees to the policy, moves into the no-pets building, and promptly adopts a large dog. Let’s say the tenant is wealthy and could easily relocate to the landlord’s other building, the one where all pets are welcome (dogs, cats, elephants, boa constrictors, whatever). But the tenant likes this building, the no-pets building, and does not want to move 100 yards across the street to the all-pets-welcome building.
Photo by Vlad Rudkov on Unsplash
In addition to being wealthy, our imaginary tenant suffers from anxiety. That’s a disability. If the tenant gives the landlord a letter from a psychiatrist stating that the tenant has a disability and the large dog helps alleviate one of the symptoms, the landlord has to exempt the tenant from the no-pets policy in the no-pets building, unless the landlord can show “undue hardship.”
To prove “undue hardship,” the landlord would need to show that this particular large dog would cause the landlord to suffer a significant expense or difficulty. Would the landlord succeed by showing that the exemption might cause some minor difficulty, something that would cost a trifling amount of money to address (e.g. scratches on the back door)? No, the landlord would have to show much more than that.
For the landlord, the “undue hardship” bar is high.
Now imagine an employee who starts work for an employer. Let’s say that unlike our imaginary tenant our imaginary employee is poor; poor in money but rich in spirit. The employee devoutly adheres to a faith that prohibits the taking of certain drugs.
When the employee first got the job, the employer had no policies compelling its workers to take drugs of any kind, and absolutely no requirement that its workers be injected with experimental pharmaceutical products. But suddenly – at the behest of the pharmaceutical industry and the government agencies that purport to regulate said industry – the employer adopts such a policy.
If the employee shows that getting injected with the products would conflict with the employee’s religion, the employer has to exempt the employee from the policy, unless the employer can show “undue hardship.”
So far, the law about religious rights in the workplace looks the same as the law about disability rights in housing. Just like the tenant, the employee is asking to be exempt from a policy because of a legally-guaranteed right to be free from discrimination.
Here’s the difference.
Remember, for a landlord to successfully claim “undue hardship” the landlord would need to show that the accommodation (i.e. letting the tenant keep the big dog) would cause the landlord to incur significant expense. Minor inconveniences would not suffice.
How about the employer? Would the employer succeed with the “undue hardship” defense just by showing that granting the exemption might cause some minor difficulty that it would cost a trifling amount of money to address?
Yes. For the employer, any inconvenience, no matter how minor, constitutes an undue hardship.
For the employer, the “undue hardship” bar is low.
So how did it come to this? Why is it easier for a rich tenant with an emotional support dog to keep an apartment than it is for a poor public employee with an abiding devotion to God to keep a job?
The Hardison decision
Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, as does Chapter 151B of the Massachusetts General Laws (courts tend to analyze these federal and State laws the same way). Under Title VII, to get out of accommodating an employee’s religious practices, an employer is supposed to prove that doing so would cause the business to suffer “undue hardship.” The statute says not merely “hardship,” meaning some expense or some difficulty, but “undue hardship.” Like “hardship,” the word “undue” has a pretty clear meaning, i.e. extraordinary or excessive.
But the courts have interpreted “undue hardship” to mean an inconvenience that is just a tad more than minimal.
In religious-discrimination cases, the employer only needs to show that the cost of accommodating the employee’s religion would incur a cost that is more than minimal. Any minor, trivial, piffling inconvenience will do, so long as it is more than minimal.
The term “more than minimal” is not at all the same as “undue hardship,” but that is the judge-made rule that the courts have been applying ever since the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977).
This rule may change when the Supreme Court decides the Groff case. There are two questions for the justices to answer, and the first one is this:
Whether the Court should disapprove the more-than-de-minimis-cost test for refusing Title VII religious accommodations stated in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977).
Let’s hope that the court simply applies the plain words of the statute that Congress enacted back in 1972, i.e. undue hardship, and does away with the judge-made rule that strips that simple two-word term of its meaning. In his amicus brief, Senator Ted Cruz puts it this way:
In 1972, the word “undue” was ordinarily defined as “unwarranted” or “excessive,” The Random House Dictionary of the English Language (1968), while “hardship” was ordinarily defined as “a condition that is difficult to endure; suffering; deprivation; oppression.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, and Webster’s New Illustrated Dictionary all concur.
“De minimis” on the other hand, was defined by Black’s Law Dictionary at the time as “very small or trifling,” tantamount to a “fractional part of a penny.”
… It cannot seriously be contended that a “very small” or “trifling” cost is the same as one that causes “excessive suffering” and “deprivation.” In fact, “more than a de minimis” cost may not even cause suffering, let alone “excessive suffering.”
I agree, and I hope that at least five justices of the Supreme Court do as well.
If the court jettisons the more-than-de-minimis-cost test, the landscape of religious-discrimination litigation will change. An employer will have to show that accommodating an employee’s religious beliefs causes not just a minor inconvenience but a real “undue hardship,” perhaps the kind of extraordinary expense that a landlord would have to prove in a disability-discrimination case. That would be good news for religious freedom and liberty of conscience in genertal.
I will keep you posted.