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Groff v. DeJoy: The Supreme Court Changes the Rules for How Employers Must Accommodate Religious Beliefs

November 08, 2023

In June 2023, the United States Supreme Court released an opinion in Groff v. DeJoy that affects all employers who are faced with accommodating their employees’ religious practices and beliefs.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating against employees and applicants based on their religion. The law requires employers to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs and practices, unless doing so would result in an undue hardship to the employer’s business.

“Undue Hardship” Has Traditionally Been Easily Met

Since 1977, courts have looked to the Supreme Court’s decision in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977) to help determine what is an “undue hardship” on an employer. Specifically, they have focused on one sentence in the decision: “To require [the employer] to bear more than a de minimis cost in order to give [the employee] Saturdays off is an undue hardship.”

Since the Hardison opinion, courts have accepted its established undue hardship definition and have generally held that an employer can deny an employee’s request for religious accommodation if it imposes anything more than a de minimis cost on the business. (Courts have generally defined “de minimis” as so small or trifling that it is not even worth noticing.)  Unsurprisingly, this has resulted in a rather low bar for denying religious accommodation requests in the workplace, and many legal scholars have opined that the interpretation was not one that the Supreme Court intended.

Supreme Court Reexamines Undue Hardship and De Minimis Standard

In Groff, the Supreme Court took the opportunity to reexamine the de minimis standard and the concept of undue hardship in the context of religious accommodation. That case concerned a mail carrier, Gerald Groff (“Groff”), who followed Sunday Sabbath – a practice that discourages any work on Sunday. Initially, the USPS placed Groff in positions that did not require him to work on Sundays. But in 2017, the station where Groff worked began making Sunday deliveries. The USPS had other employees perform Groff’s Sunday assignments and began subjecting Groff to disciplinary procedures for his failure to work on those days. In January 2019, he resigned.

Groff sued the USPS under Title VII, alleging that the agency could have accommodated his Sunday Sabbath practices “without undue hardship on the conduct of [USPS’s] business.”  Both the trial court and the court of appeals found in favor of the USPS, ruling that, under Hardison, the agency had shown that accommodating Groff’s request was more than a de minimis cost as it “imposed on his coworkers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale.”

The Supreme Court used the Groff case to review the “undue hardship” standard. It unanimously held that the lower courts’ interpretations of the Hardison case were incorrect, finding that an employer cannot prove “undue hardship” under Title VII by only showing the burden to be “more than de minimis.”  The Court noted that Hardison referred repeatedly to “substantial” burdens and that such a description was a more appropriate formulation of the standard.

The Court threw out the “de minimis” test, instead finding that to show “undue hardship” the employer must show that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its business. In reviewing such decisions by employers, courts must consider all relevant factors, including the particular accommodations at issue and their practical impact in light of the nature, size, and operating cost of the employer.

While the Court refused to make a ruling on the facts in the Groff case, it did state that when assessing a possible accommodation, the impact of the accommodation on the employee’s coworkers is only relevant to the extent that it affects the conduct of the business. The Court also cautioned employers not to just assess the reasonableness of a particular accommodation, but to consider whether there might be other potential accommodations that would suffice.

New Standard Places Greater Burden on Employers

Groff changes the analysis employers must make when faced with accommodating an employee’s religious practices. Before that decision, it was relatively easy for employers to deny certain accommodation requests by interpreting every hardship that was more than minimal as undue. Now, employers must show that the alleged resulting hardship will substantially burden their business before they can reject a proposed accommodation.  Future court decisions will no doubt refine the parameters of this new standard, but until then, employers should approach religious accommodation requests with more caution.

Employers are encouraged to seek the counsel of an experienced employment attorney when faced with an employee’s need or request for religious accommodation in the workplace.

Jeff Wilson is a Pender & Coward shareholder focusing his practice on employment law matters, including counseling and business litigation.

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