On June 29, 2023, in Groff v. DeJoy, the Supreme Court of the United States clarified for the first time in nearly fifty years the burden an employer must demonstrate to deny an accommodation for an employee’s religious beliefs in the workplace under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers to accommodate the religious practice of their employees unless doing so would impose an “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” Based on a line in the Supreme Court’s decision in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U. S. 63, 84 (1977), for decades, a majority of courts have interpreted “undue hardship” to mean any effort or cost that is more than de minimis. However, the unanimous decision in Groff v. DeJoy now holds Title VII requires an employer to show that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business to lawfully deny a requested accommodation.
Underlying Case and Lower Court Ruling
Groff is an Evangelical Christian who believes that Sunday should be devoted to worship and rest. In 2012, Groff took a mail delivery job with USPS. About one year later, USPS entered into an agreement with Amazon to facilitate Sunday deliveries. With Groff unwilling to work on Sundays, his deliveries were carried out by other staff. Throughout this time, Groff continued to receive “progressive discipline” for failing to work on Sundays. Groff eventually resigned.
Groff sued USPS under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, asserting that USPS could have accommodated his Sunday Sabbath practice without undue hardship on the conduct of USPS’s business. The District Court granted summary judgment to USPS. The Third Circuit affirmed the District Court’s ruling based on the Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison decision, which it construed to mean “that requiring an employer ‘to bear more than a de minimis cost’ to provide a religious accommodation is an undue hardship.” The Third Circuit found the de minimis cost standard met here: exempting Groff from Sunday work had imposed on his coworkers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale.
Unanimous Supreme Court Decision
In looking at the overall requirements of Title VII, the Supreme Court rejected the lower court’s “de minimis” analysis and clarified that to determine whether undue hardship exists under Title VII requires courts to resolve whether a hardship would be substantial in the context of an employer’s business. In light of this clarification, the Supreme Court vacated the lower court’s decision that USPS did not need to accommodate Groff’s request to not work on Sundays because of his religious beliefs and remanded the case, instructing the lower court to apply the “clarified context-specific standard.”
Application of this Standard and What this Means for Employers
While the Supreme Court declared that an employer must show the hardship would be substantial to its business in order to avoid accommodating a religious belief, it has provided limited guidance about what this means.
What we Know from the Court’s Limited Guidance
The Supreme Court did not adopt for religious accommodation requests the heightened standard used for disability accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
However, the Supreme Court noted that the EEOC’s guidance regarding religious accommodation, including 29 C.F.R. §1605.2(d), “is sensible and will, in all likelihood, be unaffected” by the decision. Therefore, moving forward, the EEOC guidance will likely still be an effective guidepost for responding to religious accommodation requests.
The Supreme Court emphasized Title VII requires that an employer reasonably accommodate an employee’s practice of religion, not merely that it assess the reasonableness of a particular possible accommodation or accommodations. Not all impacts on coworkers are relevant. An employer must show that coworker impacts go on to affect the conduct of the business to be considered. Additionally, when an employer is faced with an accommodation request like Groff’s, it would not be enough for the employer to conclude that forcing other employees to work overtime would constitute an undue hardship. Consideration of other options, such as voluntary shift swapping, would also be necessary.
Furthermore, the Supreme Court noted that courts may review “all relevant factors in the case at hand, including the particular accommodations at issue and their practical impact in light of the nature, size, and operating cost of an employer.” Thus, religious accommodation requests are still likely to remain a highly fact-specific issue in the future.
In light of this decision, employers may need to examine and modify their policies on religious accommodations. As always, employers should carefully review any religious accommodation requests they receive on a case-by-case basis, interact with employees about alternatives, and analyze potential costs of accommodations before making decisions regarding such requests.