July 5, 2023

Supreme Court Establishes a New Standard for Assessing Proposed Religious Accommodations in the Workplace

The Supreme Court's unanimous June 29, 2023 decision in Groff v. DeJoy rejected the standard commonly used by courts in determining whether accommodating an employee's religious beliefs would constitute an "undue hardship" under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This decision will have an immediate impact on employers. No longer may a proposed religious accommodation be denied simply by demonstrating that the accommodation would result in greater than de minimis cost. Instead, to deny an accommodation based on religion, an employer must show that accommodating the religious belief or practice would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of the employer’s particular business.

Existing Precedent

Under Title VII, employers are required to reasonably accommodate the sincerely held religious beliefs or practices of employees that conflict with work requirements, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer.

Lacking a statutory definition of “undue hardship,” courts have relied on the Supreme Court’s decision in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977). In Hardison, the employee, Hardison, requested to be excused from working on Saturdays, his observed Sabbath day. The employer, TWA, denied the request on the basis that the accommodation would require assigning other workers to cover the Saturday shifts, in violation of the seniority rights established in the applicable collective bargaining agreement. After no accommodation could be reached, Hardison was discharged for refusing to work on Saturdays. Hardison sued, alleging discrimination on the basis of religion in violation of Title VII.

The Supreme Court agreed to review TWA’s refusal to accommodate Hardison’s request, based on TWA’s position that to do so would impose an undue hardship. The Hardison Court rejected Hardison’s claim, concluding that TWA was not required to provide an accommodation that would conflict with seniority rights under a collective bargaining agreement. In the course of its decision, the Hardison Court stated that “[t]o require TWA to bear more than a de minimis cost in order to give Hardison Saturdays off would be an undue hardship.” The "more than a de minimis cost" language in Hardison was read by numerous courts as establishing the standard for assessing whether requests for accommodations based on religious beliefs or practices imposed an undue hardship. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) also accepted the “more than de minimis cost” language in Hardison as establishing the standard for assessing whether a religious accommodation would impose an undue hardship, but cautioned that the “more than a de minimis cost” should not be read to permit an employer to avoid the costs associated with voluntary swapping of shifts or administrative costs involved with reworking schedules. See 29 CFR § 1605.2(e)(1).

Background of Groff v. DeJoy

Gerald Groff was a carrier for the United States Postal Service whose religious beliefs prevented him from working on Sundays in observance of the Sabbath. The Postal Service offered to find employees to cover his shifts, but due to a shortage of rural carriers, efforts often failed. On numerous occasions, when none of Groff’s co-workers volunteered to take his Sunday shift, the local Postmaster was forced to deliver the mail or another worker was involuntarily assigned the shift. Groff resigned after the Postal Service repeatedly disciplined him for his refusal to work on Sundays. Groff filed suit for failure to reasonably accommodate his religious beliefs and practices in violation of Title VII.

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the Postal Service. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the decision, relying on the “more than de minimis cost” standard in Hardison. The majority of the Third Circuit panel concluded that exempting Groff from working on Sundays would result in an undue hardship on the Postal Service as demonstrated by the burden on Groff co-workers, disruption to the workplace and workflow, erosion of morale, and damage the Postal Service’s operations.

The Supreme Court Clarifies the Undue Hardship Standard

At the Supreme Court, both parties agreed that the “more than a de minimis cost” language of Hardison had been mistakenly read to establish the legal standard. Each side proposed alternatives. Groff suggested adopting the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standard of "significant difficulty or expense," while the Postal Service asked the Court to conclude that the EEOC’s guidance was “basically correct.” However, the Court rejected both alternatives.

The Court’s opinion, penned by Justice Alito, began by examining the language used in Title VII, specifically focusing on the term "undue hardship." It observed that the ordinary definition of "hardship" entails something that is difficult to endure and more severe than a mere burden. Additionally, the Court emphasized that the modifier "undue" implies that the burden must reach a level that is “excessive” or “unjustifiable”.

The Court left Hardison intact, but also dismissed the “more than a de minimis cost” language from Hardison as a fleeting remark that lower courts incorrectly “latched on to” as the governing standard. The Court clarified that to meet the undue hardship standard under Title VII, an employer must show that “the burden in granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.” Application of the test requires taking into account 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.

Notably, the Court clarified that an accommodation's impact on other employees may still demonstrate a hardship on the employer to the extent those impacts affect the conduct of the business itself. However, the Court emphasized that an employer cannot show undue hardship by pointing to co-worker animosity towards a specific religion or the notion of accommodating the religious beliefs of employees. The Court noted that it would be insufficient for an employer to conclude that forcing other employees to work overtime would constitute an undue hardship without first considering other options, such as voluntary shift swapping, to address potential conflicts.

Justice Sotomayor's concurring opinion, joined by Justice Jackson, agreed that the phrase “more than a de minimis cost” from Hardison was “loose language.” The concurrence highlighted the importance of considering the effects an accommodation may have on co-workers when determining the reasonableness of a requested accommodation.

Employer Implications and Future Outlook

The Groff Court emphasized that context matters in assessing whether a religious accommodation imposes an “undue hardship” on employers. Before denying requests for religious accommodation, employers must be able to show that the cost to their business of accommodating a religious request would be excessive or unjustifiable. If relying on the burden placed on other employees as the basis of the undue hardship, employers must be able to demonstrate how the accommodation’s impact on other employees would substantially affect the conduct of the business itself. This may be an easy burden to meet when the accommodation would impose health and safety risks to co-workers. It also continues to be satisfied in the Hardison context, that is, where scheduling adjustments cannot be accommodated with collectively bargained seniority rights. However, for scheduling requests to accommodate Sabbath observance or prayer breaks, it will be harder to distinguish when burdens on other employees are sufficient create a “substantial cost” to the conduct of the business.

Many employers that implemented COVID-19 vaccine mandates received requests for exceptions from the mandates based on religious objections to vaccinations, often seeking to work remotely as an alternative to vaccination. In some cases, employers relied on the “more than a de minimis cost” language to justify the denial of such requests. Under the standard set forth in Groff, however, such an employer would be required to grant an option such as remote work, unless it could show that granting the accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its business.

Employers should ensure that those employees who are responsible for considering religious accommodations understand that the commonly relied upon “more than a de minimis cost” language is not the legal standard for assessing undue hardship, and that instead an employer may not deny a religious accommodation based on undue hardship unless the employer faces “substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.” Furthermore, the decision emphasizes the need for employers to demonstrate respect for individuals' religious beliefs, since employee or customer hostility based on religion cannot be a consideration in assessing proposed accommodations for religious beliefs or practices.