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Civil Rights Appellate Clinic Files Supreme Court Amicus Brief in Potential Landmark Religious Discrimination Case

The Penn State Law in University Park Civil Rights Appellate Clinic, along with the world’s largest organization of plaintiff employment lawyers, the National Employment Lawyers Association (NELA), and their counterpart, the National Institute for Workers’ Rights, has filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court of the United States in Groff v. DeJoy.
Penn State Law Civil Rights Appellate Clinic

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – On March 6, 2023, the Penn State Law in University Park Civil Rights Appellate Clinic, along with the world’s largest organization of plaintiff employment lawyers, the National Employment Lawyers Association (NELA), and their counterpart, the National Institute for Workers’ Rights, filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court of the United States in Groff v. DeJoy, a case concerning the right to workplace accommodations for religious minorities.

The brief—filed on behalf of neither party —implores the Supreme Court to clarify confusion over the employer’s burden under Title VII’s religious accommodation provision, specifically the “more than a de minimis cost” language adopted in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison (1977). Rather than wholly replace the Hardison standard or leave it as is, this brief asks the Court to strike a balance between employees’ religious freedoms and secular employees’ workplace rights, while keeping in mind the burden of accommodations on employers and Establishment Clause concerns.

Third-year Clinic students involved in drafting the brief included Nina Franco, Will Manson, Megan Thomas, Farzin Vahidov, Taylor Washington, and Bridgette Woodford.

“Religion and religious accommodations have become central to many legal discussions,” said Washington. “The importance of giving employers clear guidance on what is required to appropriately accommodate an employee's religious belief cannot be understated. Working on this brief gave me a better appreciation for the challenges that both employees and employers face when determining what is an adequate religious accommodation.”

When the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) signed a 2013 contract with, Inc. to deliver packages on weekends, including Sundays, Petitioner Gerald Groff, a U.S. Postal worker and a Christian who observes Sunday Sabbath, found himself in a predicament. While Groff’s Postmaster originally exempted Groff from Sunday shifts if he picked up others throughout the week, Groff was eventually informed that he would have to work on Sundays or risk his job. As a result, Groff transferred to a different USPS facility, but his new Postmaster provided only a partial religious accommodation, asking for volunteers to cover Groff’s Sunday shifts. However, these volunteers were unable to cover every Sunday shift. While USPS eventually began scheduling an extra person to work on the Sundays Groff was scheduled as a precautionary measure, this put a heavy burden on third-party employees, forcing some to pick up Sundays more often and deliver extra mail. The practice was discontinued, and Groff received progressive discipline for declining to work on Sundays for which USPS could not find a replacement. In January 2019, Groff resigned and sued USPS for failing to provide him with a reasonable religious accommodation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania found that USPS reasonably accommodated Groff, holding that “an employer does not need to wholly eliminate a conflict in order to offer an employee a reasonable accommodation.” The Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, “[i]nterpreting ‘reasonably accommodate’ to require that an accommodation eliminate the conflict between a job requirement and the religious practice[.]” And in August 2022, Groff filed a petition for a writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court. That petition was granted this January.

This grant and the critical role this case will play in the lives of religious minorities and third-party employees urged the Clinic to step forward and aid NELA in persuading the Supreme Court to clarify the Title VII meanings of “reasonable accommodation” and “undue hardship.” Given the controversial nature of the case within the civil rights community, Clinic members worked tirelessly with NELA to devise an argument ensuring adequate safeguards for religious minorities that do not come at such an overwhelming cost to employers and secular employees. They reviewed the complicated history of the Hardison standard, discussed a variety of strategic approaches to the brief, and carefully drafted multiple iterations of the argument.  

“This issue wasn’t black and white,” said Woodford. “The most challenging aspect was establishing the argument without compromising both religious and secular employees’ rights. I believe we achieved that with this brief.”

Yet, despite the complexity of the case, Clinic members were able to craft a unique brief that captured the wide-ranging opinions of NELA members and different religious minority groups.

“Michael Foreman and the Penn State Civil Rights Appellate Clinic have worked with NELA on a number of important amicus briefs, including a recent Supreme Court brief with incredibly complex consequences for a wide variety of workers,” said Ashley Westby, NELA’s program director. “The Clinic put an extraordinary amount of time and effort into crafting a well-researched and persuasive brief, which we were proud to file. Professor Foreman and his team drafted a brief that will be vital to ensuring that workers are protected from discrimination in the workplace, and we are grateful for their exceptional work product.”

With their final semester of law school coming to a close, the Clinic’s members expressed pride in their work and the incredible milestones achieved along the way.

“It’s pretty incredible to say I worked on a Supreme Court brief before I even graduated law school,” said Thomas. This was a really challenging assignment cutting to the core of a critical legal issue that will affect employers and religious employees nationwide in the coming months. I’m grateful and proud to have been part of a team that put this together.”

Manson expressed a similar sentiment, “I am grateful for Professor Foreman and the other Clinic members—as well as Penn State Law’s students, faculty, and staff—for putting me in a position to do this. It’s an experience I will never forget.”

While the Clinic eagerly anticipates the Supreme Court oral argument scheduled for Groff on April 18th, they plan to reflect upon the drafting process and conduct their own mock oral arguments surrounding the case.

“It’s going to be difficult to say goodbye to Professor Foreman and my fellow clinic members,” said Franco. “But I know that—thanks to this Clinic—I have collected the real-world tools needed to be an asset to my firm next year. I now look at a brief assignment, not with dread, but with possibility.” 

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