U. S. Supreme Court Clarifies Standard for Workplace Religious Accommodations

In Groff v. DeJoy, decided today, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified the standard for employers to determine what constitutes an undue burden that would permit an employer to reject an employee’s request for a religious accommodation. Under Title VII, employers are required to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious observance or practice if it is possible to do so without “undue hardship” on the conduct of the employer’s business. Until today, the seminal case on Title VII religious accommodations was the 1977 Supreme Court decision in Trans World Airlines Inc., v. Hardison. That case established the well-known standard that an employer is not obligated to grant a religious accommodation if the accommodation would create more than a “de minimis” burden on the employer’s operations. 

Groff worked for the United States Postal Service as a Rural Carrier Associate, an employee who fills in on an as-needed basis. Because the USPS had entered into a contract to deliver Amazon packages, Groff and other employees were required to work on Sundays to handle the increased volume of deliveries. Groff requested an accommodation due to his religious beliefs, which precluded him from working on Sundays. After being disciplined several times for refusing to work Sundays, Groff resigned and filed a lawsuit. The Third Circuit applied the de minimis standard in ruling against Groff and, among other things, noted the impact of Groff’s requested accommodation on his co-workers.

The two issues considered by the Supreme Court in the Groff case were:

  • Whether the court should disapprove the de minimis test for refusing religious accommodations under Title VII as stated in Hardison; and
  • Whether an employer may demonstrate undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business under Title VII merely by showing that the requested accommodation burdens the employee’s coworkers rather than the business itself.

In finding in Groff’s favor, the Court did not overturn Harding or establish a new standard for religious accommodation. Rather, the Court stated that “[w]hat is most important is that ‘undue hardship’ in Title VII means what it says, and courts should resolve whether a hardship would be substantial in the context of an employer’s business in the commonsense manner that it would use in applying any such test.” In other words, undue hardship is shown when “a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business.” With respect to the Harding de minimis standard, Justice Alito noted “[a]lthough this line would later be viewed by many lower courts as the authoritative interpretation of the statutory term ‘undue hardship,’ it is doubtful that it was meant to take on that large role.”

With respect to burdens on co-workers, the Court stated an employer who fails to provide an accommodation has a defense only if the hardship is “undue,” and a hardship that is attributable to employee animosity to a particular religion, to religion in general, or to the very notion of accommodating religious practice cannot be considered “undue.” Justice Sotomayor, in a concurring opinion, elaborated that “[b]ecause the ‘conduct of [a] business’ plainly includes the management and performance of the business’s employees, undue hardship on the conduct of a business may include undue hardship on the business’s employees." Thus, not all impacts on coworkers are relevant, only those that go on to affect the conduct of the business.

Going forward, employers considering requests for religious accommodations need to focus on whether the burden imposed by the request is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business and only deny those accommodation requests that meet this standard for establishing undue hardship.

For questions regarding the effect of this decision on your current practices, please contact a member of the KMK Law Labor & Employment team.

KMK Law articles and blog posts are intended to bring attention to developments in the law and are not intended as legal advice for any particular client or any particular situation. The laws/regulations and interpretations thereof are evolving and subject to change. Although we will attempt to update articles/blog posts for material changes, the article/post may not reflect changes in laws/regulations or guidance issued after the date the article/post was published. Please consult with counsel of your choice regarding any specific questions you may have.


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