U.S. Supreme Court Changes Standard For Religious Accommodations

Volume: 22 | Issue: 31
June 30, 2023

You may remember that in May we briefed you on Groff v. DeJoy, a religious accommodation case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. Yesterday, in a unanimous decision, the Court ruled in favor of the employee, clarified the standard for the undue hardship test, and increased an employer’s obligations.

Here, a postal worker wanted an exemption from making private deliveries on Sundays due to his religious beliefs. The employer argued that this accommodation was an undue hardship because it created tension among employees and caused Gross’ coworkers to carry more than their share of the workload. The lower courts ruled in favor of the employer, finding that requiring an employer to bear more than a de minimis cost to provide a religious accommodation was an undue hardship under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

The Supreme Court clarified the parameters of the undue hardship test for religious accommodation requests under Title VII. The Court ruled that undue hardship is shown when an accommodation would result in a substantial increase in costs in relation to the conduct of the particular business. It specifically rejected lower court rulings that have used a “more than a de minimis cost” standard for the undue hardship test.

The Court explained: “If Title VII said only that an employer need not be made to suffer a ‘hardship,’ an employer could not escape liability simply by showing that an accommodation would impose some sort of additional costs. Adding the modifier ‘undue’ means that the requisite burden or adversity must rise to an ‘excessive’ or ‘unjustifiable’ level. Understood in this way, ‘undue hardship’ means something very different from a burden that is merely more than de minimis, i.e., ‘very small or trifling.’ The ordinary meaning of ‘undue hardship’ thus points toward . . . ‘substantial additional costs’ or ‘substantial expenditures.’” The Court refused to adopt specific tests suggested by the parties and directed courts to apply this clarified undue hardship test by considering “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 Court also clarified the impact of an accommodation on coworkers, explaining: “Impacts on coworkers are relevant only to the extent those impacts go on to affect the conduct of the business. A court must analyze whether that further logical step is shown. Further, a hardship that is attributable to employee animosity to a particular religion, to religion in general, or to the very notion of accommodating religious practice, cannot be considered ‘undue.’ Bias or hostility to a religious practice or accommodation cannot supply a defense.”

Finally, the Court clarified that “Title VII requires that an employer reasonably accommodate an employee’s practice of religion, not merely that it assess the reasonableness of a particular possible accommodation.” Thus, “[f]aced with an accommodation request like Groff’s, it would not be enough for an employer to conclude that forcing other employees to work overtime would constitute an undue hardship. Consideration of other options, such as voluntary shift swapping, would also be necessary.” This language is particularly important because it directs employers to consider whether other accommodations are possible to accommodate the employee’s religious beliefs.

The Court’s decision makes it harder for an employer to deny a religious accommodation. While it does not go so far as to require an employer to apply the much more demanding undue hardship standard used under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Court clearly expects employers to engage in an interactive process with the employee and to consider other accommodation alternatives before deciding the employee’s religious beliefs cannot be accommodated.

KZA attorneys are always available to help you analyze and navigate religious accommodation requests. If you have questions about this topic or this case, please contact us. 

KZA Employer Report articles are for general information only; they are not intended and should not be construed to be legal advice. Reading or replying to such articles does not establish an attorney-client relationship. In addition, because the subject matters and applicable laws discussed in Employer Report articles are often in a state of change and not always applicable to every type of business entity or organization, readers should consult with counsel before making decisions based on the same.

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