The Supreme Court has raised the standard on whether an employer can claim undue hardship in response to a religious accommodation request.
For decades, if the cost of an accommodation was more than de minimis, an employer could deny a request.
But the court’s unanimous decision on June 29, 2023, changed that.
Now, employers have to show that approving a religious accommodation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would result in “substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business,” the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) said in Groff v. DeJoy.
The High Court stated that when an employer makes a decision about undue hardship, all relevant factors must be taken into account. Those factors include:
- the particular accommodations in question, and
- their practical impact when considering the nature, size and operating cost of the employer.
Title VII requires an employer to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious practice, but not if doing so would create an undue hardship.
Since 1977, the undue hardship standard has been based on another Supreme Court case – Trans World Airlines Inc. v. Hardison. That case contains a phrase that lower courts and employers have repeated many times since then: “more than a de minimis cost.”
As noted in the more recent SCOTUS case, Hardison also makes reference to overlooked phrases such as “substantial additional costs” and “substantial expenditures.” That weighed into the court’s decision to raise the standard above a trivial cost.
Key details of Groff
Here’s what happened in Groff: Gerald Groff began working for the United States Postal Service (USPS) in 2012. He was an evangelical Christian who believed that he should devote Sundays to worship and rest, not work. As a postal employee, he had Sundays off until USPS began facilitating Sunday deliveries for Amazon. Transferring to a more rural location bought him some time, but eventually, that location began making Amazon deliveries as well.
He explained to his employer he couldn’t work on Sundays due to his religious beliefs. USPS assigned the Sunday work to his co-workers, which created morale problems, and at times, even the postmaster had to step in to deliver mail. Meanwhile, Groff received progressive discipline for his failure to work on Sundays. Eventually, in 2019, he resigned, thereby avoiding termination.
Later, he sued under Title VII, saying his employer failed to accommodate his Sunday Sabbath practice.
Both the federal district court and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals granted summary judgment to the employer. The Supreme Court, though, reached a different conclusion. In addition, SCOTUS sent the case back to the lower courts, to put its newly clarified hardship standard into action.
Undue hardship under other laws, regs
Both parties in Groff had hoped the Supreme Court would go further than it did, in terms of elaborating upon the standards they sought.
Groff had asked the High Court to use language from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which defines undue hardship as that which requires “significant difficulty or expense.” Not only that, Groff thought the lower courts should be instructed to draw upon ADA caselaw to inform them on the issue of undue hardship under Title VII.
The government, which relied upon the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC’s) regulations, wanted the Supreme Court to endorse the EEOC’s understanding of Hardison as basically correct.
Those suggestions went too far, explained Justice Samuel Alito who delivered the court’s opinion.
Impact on co-workers
As an additional point, the court clarified that when considering an accommodation, the focus should be the impact on “the conduct of the employer’s business.” Co-workers may be affected, but that’s only relevant to the extent that the business is ultimately affected.
So, let’s say you may need to ask someone’s co-workers to switch shifts to provide a religious accommodation. A decrease in employee morale alone wouldn’t be enough to prove undue hardship. You’d have to show how that flowed over into the conduct of your business.
Furthermore, the court provided examples of what wouldn’t be an undue hardship. They included employee animosity to:
- a particular religion
- religion in general, or
- the very notion of accommodating religious practice.