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How much burden must a company demonstrate before it is relieved of the obligation to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs in the workplace under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964? On June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a decision clarifying the answer to this question. The unanimous ruling in Groff v. DeJoy rejected a lower court’s decision that the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) did not need to accommodate a former mail carrier’s request to not work on Sundays because of his religious beliefs. However, the new ruling has opened new questions and potentially altered the standards for evaluating accommodation requests in the future.

Quick Hits

  • The Supreme Court unanimously held that the undue hardship defense to providing a religious accommodation requires showing that the proposed accommodation would cause a substantial burden in the overall context of the employer’s business.
  • Earlier interpretations of the undue hardship defense which suggested employers only needed to show more than a de minimis cost are incorrect.
  • Religious accommodation requests are likely to remain highly fact-specific issues.
  • The Court stated that the EEOC’s religious accommodations guidance “is sensible and will, in all likelihood, be unaffected” by the opinion.

Reinterpreting the Undue Burden Defense

For more than forty-five years, courts have reviewed religious accommodation requests through the lens of the 1977 Supreme Court case, Trans World Airlines v. Hardison. Hardison was controversial the moment it was announced because it suggested only a minimal level of accommodation was necessary. The Supreme Court explained in an oft-quoted sentence that to require an employer “to bear more than a de minimis cost in order to give” an employee “Saturdays off is an undue hardship.” As a result of this language, many lower courts interpreted “undue hardship” to mean any effort or cost that was more than de minimis, and diverse religious groups began to complain that a de minimis standard was being used to deny even minor accommodations. Several efforts were also made to amend Title VII’s accommodation requirements to no avail.

The Supreme Court’s Decision in Groff v. DeJoy

In Groff v. DeJoy, the Supreme Court clarified that the de minimis interpretation of Hardison may have caused lower courts to pay insufficient attention to the requirements of Title VII. The Supreme Court went to great efforts to distinguish Groff’s case from Hardison and cited to an overlooked footnote in the case that suggested that an accommodation was not required when it entailed substantial costs or expenditures.

The Court also explained that Hardison’s reference to the de minimis standard was not intended to be read literally, and furthermore rejected this approach for accommodation claims. Instead, it held that showing more than a de minimis cost does not suffice to prove the undue hardship defense. Instead, according to the Court, employers must now show a burden from a religious accommodation is “substantial in the overall context of the employer’s business.”

Applying the Substantial Burden Test

Although the Supreme Court has announced that an employer must show a substantial burden to its business in order to avoid accommodating a religious belief, it has provided limited guidance about what “substantial burden” means. The Groff decision indicates that 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.” Additionally, the Court noted that courts may review “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.”

The Supreme Court expressly rejected adopting disability discrimination case law and stated that “it would not be prudent to ratify in toto a body of EEOC [U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] interpretation that has not had the benefit of the clarification.” However, in Groff, the Court did note that the EEOC’s guidance regarding religious accommodation, including 29 C.F.R. §1605.2(d), “is sensible and will, in all likelihood, be unaffected” by the decision. Therefore, although the new standard remains unclear, EEOC guidance may be an effective guidepost for navigating accommodation requests.

Key Takeaways

The Supreme Court’s Groff decision did not expressly overrule Hardison. Instead, it eliminated a widely-used interpretation of Hardison and clarified the correct standard for analyzing the undue hardship defense. Under the Court’s ruling, the undue hardship defense should now be assessed by focusing on whether an accommodation imposes substantial costs on the business—not whether more than de minimis costs are being imposed.

Religious accommodation requests are still likely to remain a highly fact-specific issue in the future. Although the Supreme Court has left Groff’s case to be analyzed under the new standard, it noted that other accommodations may have been available for his request to not work during the Sabbath. These included evaluating “the cost of incentive pay, or the administrative costs of coordinating with other nearby stations with a broader set of employees.” Accordingly, employers may want to carefully review any religious accommodation requests they receive, interact with employees about alternatives, and analyze potential costs of accommodations before making decisions regarding such requests.

Ogletree Deakins will continue to monitor developments and will publish updates on the firm’s Leaves of Absence blog as new information becomes available.

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