What you should know about oral arguments in the religious postal worker case

April 21, 2023

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on April 18 in Groff v. Dejoy, a case dealing with religious accommodations in the workplace. This case, which centers around a Christian postal worker who wishes to observe the Sabbath, puts before the court a question of what burden employers must meet before denying religious accommodations to their employees. (See also: Explainer: Supreme Court hears arguments in religious postal worker case.)

The court is expected to issue a ruling sometime before the end of June 2023. Here is what you should know about the arguments made in that case.

What are oral arguments?

During oral arguments, an attorney for each side of a case is given the opportunity to make a presentation to the court and answer questions posed by the justices. 

As the Supreme Court website notes, “The arguments are an opportunity for the Justices to ask questions directly of the attorneys representing the parties to the case, and for the attorneys to highlight arguments that they view as particularly important.” 

Oral arguments are not a requirement for a Supreme Court case. In fact, only about 53–70% of cases accepted by the court each year include oral arguments. But oral arguments provide the public ​​​their first glimpse into what issues or concerns the justices consider most relevant. Observers of the court must be cautious, though, because it’s difficult to impossible to tell how a case will be decided based only on this process. 

What was the argument presented by the attorney for Groff?

Aaron Steett, the counsel arguing for Groff, said: 

What was the argument of the solicitor general?

Elizabeth B. Prelogar, solicitor general of the United States, argued the case on behalf of the government. Among the claims she made, Prelogar: 

What did the justices say?

In questioning the attorneys, the justices raised some concerns about expanding religious accommodations:

Justice Kavanaugh also discussed the interpretation of Hardison and Footnote 14, which refers to “substantial expenditures” or “substantial additional costs.” The attorney for Groff agreed that the substantial costs standard might be suitable but emphasized the importance of how it is applied in specific situations. Kavanaugh acknowledged that the real challenge lies in determining how to apply the standard to situations involving factors such as paying new workers, short-shifts, or violating collective bargaining agreements. The attorney suggested a “significant-difficulty-or-expense” test could provide more guidance, as it has been used in other states for religious accommodations. Both agree that undue hardship is a context-specific standard, and the attorney argued that the proposed test would help address the fact-specific nature of such cases.

Other arguments raised by some of the justices included:

One hypothetical situation that was raised asked whether a $1 increase in hourly wage for an employee to accommodate a religious worker would constitute an undue hardship for a company like Amazon. Prelogar explained that the answer would depend on the nature of the accommodation and referred back to the court’s decision in Hardison, where it focused on the payment of overtime wages. She emphasized that reasonable accommodation should allow an employee to complete their work requirements without conflict with their religious beliefs, and that regularly paying overtime wages may cross the line.

What was the rebuttal to the solicitor general’s argument?

At the end of oral arguments, the petitioner is allowed to offer a rebuttal.