In a unanimous decision issued on June 29, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court (the Court) clarified the standard for determining undue hardship in a religious accommodation request. In Groff v. DeJoy (Groff), the Court held that “Title VII requires an employer that denies a religious accommodation to show that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.”
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, made it unlawful for covered employers “to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges [of] employment, because of such individual’s … religion.” The statute was amended to make clear that religion includes all aspects of belief, observance, and practice, and that employers must “reasonably accommodate” such observances and practices if doing so would not cause an “undue hardship on the conduct of its business.” The previous standard for undue hardship for religious accommodation was whether it would require the employer to “bear more than a de minimis cost.”
Groff was brought by an Evangelical Christian who worked for the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). Mr. Groff refused to work on Sunday, which he believed should be reserved for worship and rest. When he began his employment with the USPS, Sunday work was not required. However, the following year the USPS began facilitating Sunday deliveries. Mr. Groff requested a transfer to a rural post office station which, at the time, did not make Sunday deliveries. USPS granted his request but sometime thereafter, this rural post office station also began Sunday deliveries. USPS did attempt to accommodate Mr. Groff’s request to be excluded from Sunday work by having other employees complete the Sunday deliveries. However, Mr. Groff began receiving progressive discipline for not working on Sundays and so he resigned.
In Groff, the Court explains that it is clarifying and not overruling a previous decision and that Title VII requires a standard higher than de minimis for undue hardship. To determine what an employer must prove to defend a denial of a religious accommodation request, the Court begins with the text of Title VII. “Hardship” is, at a minimum, “something hard to bear.” Adding the modifier “undue” means that the requisite burden must rise to an “excessive” or “unjustifiable” level. Thus, the Court stated that “undue hardship” means something very different from a burden that is merely more than de minimis, i.e., “very small or trifling.” The standard should be closer to “substantial additional costs” or “substantial expenditures.”
After Groff, courts must consider all relevant factors, including the accommodations at issue and their practical impact given the nature, size, and operating cost of the employer. An employer must show that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.
Impact on Employers
Given Groff’s clarification on the undue hardship standard for religious accommodation, now is the time for employers to review their current policies and procedures used in reviewing religious accommodation requests. When determining the impact on the “conduct of the business,” it will be very important to document all issues, with supporting workplace detail. Examples include which business operations cannot run with a person absent, which processes cannot be performed, impact on customers, and impact on other employees.
Additionally, if you anticipate receiving, or already receive, a large volume of religious accommodation requests, now would be the time to consider options or alternatives that you know could work for your workplace. Then, if an employee’s request is not one that can be accommodated, you have other options that can be offered.
As always, if you have any questions on this topic, please contact your Stall Legal attorney.