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Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of religion. An employer can’t say that he won’t hire Muslims or Mormons or Jews, and he can’t fire one of his employees because of their faith. But how is religion defined? Religion, after all, is both a belief and a practice. It’s not only what happens in the head of the believer—it’s also the actions the believer undertakes based on their religion. That question has been a major point of legal battles relating to religion and the Civil Rights Act over the last sixty years.

In 1977, the Supreme Court heard the case of TWA v Hardison. Larry Hardison was a Christian employee at Trans World Airlines and felt that he could not work on the Sabbath (which his particular Christian denomination kept, like Jews, on Saturdays). TWA tried to reassign him, but that didn’t work and he was eventually fired. When Hardison sued TWA for religious discrimination, the court sided with TWA, arguing that, yes, accommodations should be made for believers, but that TWA tried to make some reasonable accommodations and could not be expected to make more than that. Not everyone on the court agreed; Thurgood Marshall wrote, in his dissent from the majority’s opinion, that “religious diversity has been seriously eroded” by the ruling.

Since then, the decision in TWA v Hardison has held. Yet it may not hold for much longer. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court heard a new case about an American Christian who, like Larry Hardison, was fired for keeping the Sabbath. That case, Groff v. DeJoy, could be a major moment in the history of religious freedom in America. Nathan Diament, executive director for the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center, is the co-author of the OU’s amicus brief on this case, and also the author of an April 17 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Can the Post Office Force a Christian to Deliver on Sunday?” He joins Mosaic editor Jonathan Silver to discuss his argument, the history of the issue, and what the Supreme Court might decide.

Musical selections in this podcast are drawn from the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, op. 31a, composed by Paul Ben-Haim and performed by the ARC Ensemble.