May 26, 2024
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Groff v. Dejoy: A Victory for Jews and All People of Faith

By Benjamin Lieman

When Jews began immigrating to the United State en masse in the 20th century, finding work while maintaining Sabbath observance was a difficult, often impossible, task. We have all heard the stories of our ancestors finding a job one week only to be searching for a new one the next. Many Jews endured that suffering. Others resorted, understandably, to violating their deeply held beliefs to provide food for their families. It has received less media attention than some of the Court’s more high-profile cases, but a recent Supreme Court decision helped ensure that this situation will never arise again.

That case is Groff v. Dejoy. In a straightforward unanimous opinion, the Court made it more difficult for employers to deny religious accommodations unless they had a good reason, reinforcing the ideal of religious liberty, one of this country’s essential founding principles. Changing times and circumstances may have removed the Jewish community from feeling the full force of its impact, but it is important that we not overlook the significance of the decision.

With the advent of the civil rights movement and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, attitudes and law began to change. Employers were prohibited from discriminating against employees on account of their religion, meaning, among other things, that employers could no longer hire or fire employees based on their religious practice. In 1972, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act was amended to clarify the extent to which employers had to accommodate their employees’ religious practices. The amendment stated that an employer was required to provide reasonable accommodations unless it caused “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” Jews could rejoice at the prospect that Sabbath and halachic observance would no longer serve as an obstacle to employment.

Unfortunately, only five years later, in Hardison v. TWA, the Supreme Court gutted that standard, seemingly defining “undue hardship” to include anything more than a de minimis burden on the employer. This ruling effectively allowed many employers to avoid making any accommodations at all. For example, an employer may not have been required to pay even very small bonuses or overtime payments to incentivize co-workers to accept shift swaps so that a Jewish employee did not have to work on the Sabbath.

In Groff v. Dejoy, Justice Alito, writing for the Court, restored the power of Title VII, raising the de minimis standard. Reinterpreting its precedent, the Court argued that Hardison, as it had been understood, was incorrect. What the Hardison Court meant to say, and what should be applied moving forward, is that a burden is considered “undue hardship” when it “is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business.” An employer will only be excused when “granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.” To return to our previous example, a small overtime payment can be required so long as it is not substantial in the context of the overall business.

For various reasons, many in the Jewish community did not feel the brunt of the Hardison decision as it had years before the Civil Rights Act. The culture had become more accommodating towards different types of people. Jews were also advancing economically, working in fields where such employment challenges were less of a concern. Yet, cases continued to arise for Jews where employers refused to bear any expense to accommodate their religious practice. As recently as 2019, a Sabbath-observant Jew was terminated from his position at Newark Liberty International Airport because they refused to accommodate his observance of Sabbath and holidays. In 2017, a paramedic was terminated because she wanted to wear a skirt to work as opposed to pants. Also in 2017, a court allowed a Jewish woman to effectively be fired from her position at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority for taking off for Passover. Prior to Groff, a co-worker’s dislike of a religious practice, say, leaving early on a winter Friday to be home for the Sabbath, was enough for an employer to avoid the accommodation. Now, thanks to Groff, the standard is at least somewhat more demanding.

Groff is not only beneficial for Jews, but for the wider religious community as well. Hardison provided employers an out from accommodating members of many different religions including, for example, Sikhs requesting to wear religious garb or Muslims requesting time for prayer. In an era where religion is on the decline and the culture is becoming less tolerant of dissenting views, it is important as Jews that we stand alongside our religious brethren to defend our right to practice our beliefs openly and comfortably as members of the wider culture.

The Groff decision, as well as many others that have been handed down in recent years, represents an important shift in religious liberty doctrine that Jews should be grateful for. Though not without its flaws, the United States, from its founding, has been profoundly welcoming to the Jews. That is rooted in this country’s commitment to individual liberty as the source of human flourishing. Whether for practical or idealistic reasons, advancements of individual liberty in the law are good for the Jewish people if we hope to be halachically committed Jews as well as full-fledged citizens and participants in the American experiment. We, as Jews, should recognize and applaud when all nine Justices come together in a strong showing of support of religious and individual liberty.


Benjamin Lieman is a student at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and is a summer associate at the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty.

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