The Supreme Court on Thursday sided unanimously with a former postal worker seeking stronger workplace protections for people of faith.

In a decision aimed at clearing up decades of confusion, the justices said employers cannot deny religious accommodation requests — including requests to avoid working on the Sabbath — unless granting them would impose a substantial burden.

“An employer must show that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito in the majority opinion, which was unanimous.

The Supreme Court, the Sabbath and a much-debated piece of civil rights law
What the Supreme Court said Tuesday about working on the Sabbath

Several faith and religious liberty advocacy groups applauded the decision, saying it was a win for religious Americans.

First Liberty Institute, part of the legal team representing the plaintiff, Gerald Groff, called it a “landmark victory.”

“No American should be forced to choose between their faith and their job,” Kelly Shackelford, president, CEO and chief counsel, said. “The Court’s decision today restores religious freedom to every American in the workplace. This decision will positively help millions and millions of Americans — those who work now and their children and grandchildren.”

Interfaith Alliance called it a “win for religious freedom,” and said it provides protections for both religious Americans and employers.

“This ruling safeguards employees of all beliefs and backgrounds and puts religion on the same playing field as other protected groups,” said Darcy Hirsh, senior director of policy and advocacy.

Religious liberty group Becket Law said on Twitter, “The Court’s decision is a major course correction in how lower courts and employers must think about religious accommodations in the workplace going forward.”

But while the decision is significant, it does not go as far as some observers expected — or hoped — it would.

The justices chose not to overrule a decision from 1977, which settled a dispute between Trans World Airlines and a former airline employee who wanted Saturdays off to observe the Sabbath.

The 1977 decision in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison still stands

In the 1977 case TWA v. Hardison, the Supreme Court said TWA had not violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which requires companies to offer reasonable religious accommodations, by refusing to adjust the man’s schedule. More specifically, justices in the majority said employers did not have to grant religious accommodation requests that pose anything more than a “de minimis cost.”

In this year’s case, a former postal worker, Groff, an evangelical Christian who observes the Sabbath on Sundays, challenged the court’s past ruling, arguing that the “de minimis” language went against the spirit of the Civil Rights Act. He said the U.S. Postal Service should have had to do more to accommodate his faith-based scheduling requests.

Many major faith groups, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, National Association of Evangelicals and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, threw their support behind Groff’s claims. For decades, religious leaders have called for the 1977 ruling to be overturned by the court or weakened by Congress as they defended the rights of religious employees.

In a concurrence written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and joined by Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, Sotomayor said the court’s decision not to overturn the Hardison case was a “wise choice,” and said the “undue hardship” test should apply to a religious employee’s co-workers as well as a business’s financial interests.

Lower courts are to stop focusing on “de minimis” language

During oral arguments in April, attorneys for Groff and the Postal Service seemed to agree that the “de minimis” language was unfortunate, as the Deseret News previously reported. But they disagreed on whether it had led to unfair outcomes in the decades since the Hardison decision was handed down.

They also disagreed on whether, if the 1977 decision had never happened, Groff would actually have had a right under Title VII to receive his requested time off.

Groff and his attorneys said the Postal Service could have found other employees to cover Sunday shifts without facing an undue hardship. Attorneys for the Postal Service, on the other hand, said Groff was putting an unfair burden on the rest of his team.

The justices, meanwhile, appeared torn between wanting to address the concerns raised by keeping the “de minimis” language on the books and wanting to avoid causing confusion in workplaces nationwide.

The court’s new decision attempts to smooth over this tension by offering clarification rather than a brand-new approach to Title VII. It instructs lower courts to stop focusing on the “de minimis” language but does not throw out nearly 50 years of related case law.

“The erroneous de minimis interpretation of Hardison may have had the effect of leading courts to pay insufficient attention to what the actual text of Title VII means,” Alito wrote.

Moving forward, judges should dig into the various costs associated with granting a religious accommodation request to determine whether an employer would truly face “undue hardship,” he said.

“‘Undue hardship’ is shown when a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business,” the majority opinion said.

Although Thursday’s decision affirms Groff’s concerns about the “de minimis” standard, the former postal worker’s legal battle is not over.

Thursday’s ruling sends the case back to the lower courts for reconsideration, where Groff is not guaranteed to win.

“Without foreclosing the possibility that USPS will prevail, we think it appropriate to leave it to the lower courts to apply our clarified context-specific standard,” the majority opinion said.