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Supreme Court rules on right to seek religious accommodations at work

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Religion has been on a winning streak at the Supreme Court, and a decision today continued that trend. In a unanimous ruling, the justices made it easier for workers to seek religious accommodations on the job. The court said an employer must grant a worker's request unless doing so would impose a substantial cost to the business. Douglas Laycock is a leading scholar on religious liberty and an emeritus professor of law at the University of Virginia. Thanks for joining us.

DOUGLAS LAYCOCK: Happy to be here.

SHAPIRO: So this case involved a postal worker who did not want to work on Sundays in observance of his faith. What's your initial reaction to the decision?

LAYCOCK: Well, I mean, this is a correction. And it's not the court, really, it's Congress. The employment discrimination laws prohibit religious discrimination, and Congress defined that to include religious practices and not just beliefs. And the statute says the employer must accommodate an employee's religious practice if it can do so without undue hardship.

SHAPIRO: Can I drill down on that undue hardship phrase with you? Because they said substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of the particular business. Parse that for us. What does that mean?

LAYCOCK: Well, I mean, you have to understand it in comparison or contrast to what they said 45 years ago, that an undue hardship was anything more than a de minimis expense. De minimis is just Latin for minimal or trifling. So employers essentially didn't have to do anything to accommodate religious practices. And there were cases in the lower courts that say you don't even have to try to negotiate a shift trade for your employee. You can refuse an accommodation because co-workers get irritated or customers don't like to see a Muslim head covering.

SHAPIRO: And so how widespread do you expect the impact of this to be?

LAYCOCK: Well, I think it would be quite widespread for religious minorities. I mean, this is important to some very conservative Christians. It's important to Orthodox Jews. It's important to Muslims. And, you know, most of these cases are scheduling cases. They're people observing the Sabbath or a religious holiday. Or they are dress cases. They're people wearing yarmulkes or hijabs or modest clothing. And most of them don't involve much burden on the employer - some of the scheduling cases do, but most of them don't and the dress cases certainly don't. So requiring substantial cost or burden is a very substantial change for the employees who need this protection.

SHAPIRO: What do you make of the fact that this was a unanimous ruling?

LAYCOCK: I'm not surprised. I expected it to be unanimous because the decision from the '70s was so clearly wrong as a matter of statutory interpretation and what the words actually meant. And, you know, and the court - the court emphasizes the text of statutes today much more than it used to. So I expected unanimity to try to fix this. I'm a little surprised that they unanimously agreed on how to do it, but it needed to be fixed. And they finally recognized that.

SHAPIRO: To step back for a moment, so many of the religious liberty cases that have come before the court in recent years are very contentious and closely divided, questions involving access to birth control or a wedding cake in a same-sex marriage. And so how does this inform some of those religious liberty cases that sit more at the heart of the culture wars?

LAYCOCK: Well, I mean, you mentioned the most divisive and the most publicized. There have been a number of unanimous religion decisions. I think both the left and right wings of the court agree on the importance of the free exercise of religion. What they disagree about is what kinds of countervailing interests are so important that they override free exercise of religion. So for the liberals, contraception and women's rights and abortion and same-sex marriage are all more important than religious liberty. For some of the conservatives, it turned out capital punishment being officially implemented was more important than religious liberty. So they disagree about what kind of countervailing interests count. But when you don't have a big countervailing interest in the picture, they're fairly often unanimous about protecting the free exercise of religion.

SHAPIRO: That's Douglas Laycock, emeritus professor of law at the University of Virginia. Thank you for your analysis.

LAYCOCK: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gus Contreras
Tinbete Ermyas
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.