Supreme Court Issues Unanimous Ruling in Religious Accommodation Case
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court issued headline-grabbing decisions in which it split along ideological lines. But it was Thursday’s unanimous decision in Groff v. DeJoy (June 29, 2023), authored by Justice Samuel Alito, that most directly impacts employers. In Groff, the Court “clarified” the standard under which employers should evaluate requests for religious accommodations.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers with 15 or more employees to reasonably accommodate those whose sincerely held religious beliefs or observances conflict with work requirements, unless the accommodation would create an “undue hardship” for the employer. Title VII does not define the term undue hardship. But in TWA v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977), the Supreme Court ruled that requiring an employer “to bear more than a de minimis cost” to grant a requested accommodation would be an undue hardship.
The Groff case arose when U.S. Postal Service (USPS) rural mail carrier Gerald Groff was denied his requested religious accommodation to not work on Sundays. (The postal service was making Sunday deliveries for Amazon.) The USPS tried to find other carriers to cover Groff’s Sunday shifts, but it was sometimes not able to do so. Groff requested that his employer exempt him from Sunday work, but the postal service declined, stating that doing so created an undue hardship.
Groff sued for religious discrimination under Title VII. The U.S. District Court, and on appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, ruled against him. The Third Circuit held that exempting Groff from Sunday work caused an undue hardship for the USPS because it “imposed on his coworkers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale.”
Supreme Court Decision
In reviving Groff’s case, the Supreme Court stated that “showing ‘more than a de minimis cost’ does not suffice to establish ‘undue hardship’ under Title VII.” Per the Court, it now “understand[s] Hardison to mean that ‘undue hardship’ is shown when a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business.” Under the updated standard, an employer would face undue hardship when “the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of” the employer’s business.
The Court in Groff declined to determine what facts would meet its new “substantial increased costs” test and remanded the case for further proceedings. It stated, “[W]e … leave it to the lower courts to apply our clarified context-specific standard.” According to the Court, “courts must apply the test in a manner that takes into account all relevant factors …, including the particular accommodations at issue and their practical impact in light of the nature, ‘size and operating cost of [an] employer.’” But the Court added that “it would not be enough for an employer to conclude that forcing other employees to work overtime would constitute an undue hardship.”
Employers can now expect to receive more religious accommodation requests, including requests for scheduling changes and time off, and requests for exemptions from vaccine requirements. Managers, human resources professionals, and others involved in making accommodation decisions will need to be trained on how to respond. Employers denying a request will need to be prepared to show they would face “substantial increased costs” if they accommodate the request.
Also, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which enforces Title VII, will likely update its guidance on the religious accommodation requirement, though the Supreme Court in Groff noted that “A good deal of the EEOC’s guidance in this area is sensible and will, in all likelihood, be unaffected by the Court’s clarifying decision.”
Finally, do not confuse the undue hardship exception under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) with the undue hardship standard in Title VII cases. When Congress passed the ADA, it defined undue hardship to mean “an action requiring significant difficulty or expense.” The Court in Groff declined to adopt that definition as the test under Title VII.
The Maynard Nexsen Labor and Employment Law group stands ready to assist with questions about the Supreme Court’s new understanding of what Title VII requires in the religious accommodation context. Please contact us for any additional information or guidance.
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