The Supreme Court recently ruled that the burden an employer must meet in denying a requested religious accommodation is “substantial” and not merely “de minimis.” Employers will now have a harder time denying religious accommodations.
How much greater will the burden on employers be? That is yet to be seen, as the Supreme Court sent the case back down to the lower court for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. Also, we expect new guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in light of the Court’s ruling.
On June 29, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in Groff v. DeJoy, Postmaster General, unanimously clarifying Title VII’s religious accommodation requirements. The Court ruled that an employer that denies a religious accommodation must show that the burden of granting the accommodation requested would result in substantially increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business. This “substantial burden” showing is in contrast to the long-established “de minimis” cost, a test used by courts since 1977. In doing so, the Court heightened the bar for the employers to show that proposed religious accommodations are unduly burdensome and bolstered an employee’s ability to obtain such accommodations at work for their religious practices.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers to accommodate the religious practice of their employees unless doing so would impose an “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” 42 U.S.C. §2000e(j). In 1977, in Trans World Airlines v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63, the Supreme Court determined that the “undue hardship” defense to granting an employee’s religious accommodation request required employers to show anything imposing more than a “de minimis” cost to the business.
Hardison concerned a dispute between Trans World Airlines (TWA) and its former employee, Hardison, who underwent a religious conversion and began to observe the Sabbath by leaving work from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday, an absence that conflicted with his work schedule. Although Hardison was initially granted the accommodation of being transferred to a night shift, the issue resurfaced when he obtained a transfer back to the day shift (in a different building) so that he could spend evenings with his wife. In the new building, Hardison did not have enough seniority to avoid working during his observed Sabbath. Ultimately, Hardison was terminated for insubordination.
Hardison sued TWA for failure to reasonably accommodate his religious beliefs. After the case made its way to the Supreme Court, the Court held that Title VII did not require the employer to deprive its senior employees of their seniority rights in order to accommodate a junior employee’s religious practices. Because the Court could identify no other way for TWA to accommodate Hardison’s request for an exemption from work on his Sabbath without violating the seniority rights of other employees, it held for TWA. The opinion itself devoted little attention to the question of determining when increased costs amount to an “undue hardship” under the statute; however, the opinion included the following one sentence that became the prevailing test for lower courts to apply in denial of religious accommodation cases for the next half-decade:
“To require TWA to bear more than a de minimis cost in order to give Hardison Saturdays off is an undue hardship.”
432 U.S. at 84.
The Groff Case
Fast-forward 46 years, and the Supreme Court was provided the opportunity to clarify what Justice Alito called the “erroneous de minimis interpretation of Hardison” in its opinion in Groff v. DeJoy.
Gerald Groff – an Evangelical Christian who believes that Sundays should be devoted to worship and rest – was a Rural Carrier Associate at the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), a job that required him to assist full-time carrier employees in the delivery of mail. When Groff initially started with USPS, his position did not involve Sunday work. However, starting in 2013, USPS contracted with another mail carrier to help with Sunday deliveries, which led to a requirement that Groff must work on Sundays. Groff initially transferred out of his station to a smaller rural station that, at the time of the transfer, did not make Sunday deliveries. Sunday deliveries eventually began out of that office, too. Groff refused to work on Sundays, and for a long time, USPS made other arrangements to cover for his absence on Sundays. Throughout that time, however, Groff continued to receive progressive discipline for failing to work on Sundays, which eventually led to his resignation.
Groff sued, claiming that USPS violated Title VII because it could have accommodated his Sunday Sabbath practice “without undue hardship on the conduct of [USPS’s] business.” Applying the low-bar “de minimis” standard from the extensive case law since Hardison, the District Court granted summary judgment to USPS, and the Third Circuit affirmed. The Third Circuit panel held that exempting Groff from Sunday work had disrupted the workplace and imposed greater work on other employees, and diminished employee morale.
The New “Clarified” Standard
The Supreme Court reversed, holding that “showing ‘more than a de minimis cost,’ as that phrase is used in common parlance, does not suffice to establish ‘undue hardship’ under Title VII.” Rather, the Court clarified that the Hardison ruling, properly read, meant that “undue hardship” was shown if “a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business” – an inquiry that is fact-specific. As Justice Alito further explains, an employer can no longer escape liability under Title VII by showing that an accommodation would impose some sort of additional costs.
Now, the Court made it clear that those costs must rise to the “excessive” or “unjustifiable” level of hardship, typically in the form of “substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.” The Court made a point of noting that an accommodation’s effect on co-workers may have ramifications for the conduct of the employer’s business, but a court cannot stop its analysis there.
The Supreme Court remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with its opinion back to the lower court.
Please contact the authors if you have any questions about how this recent Supreme Court ruling might impact your business.
This content was also published by HR Professionals Magazine on August 4, 2023 and is available online.