In a previous article, we wrote about a case before the U.S. Supreme Court that centered on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on religion and other factors including race, sex and national origin. In a unanimous decision released on June 29, 2023, the Court effectively expanded the rights of employees against religious discrimination in the workplace, and made it easier for them to obtain accommodations.
When an employee’s sincere religious observances or practices conflict with workplace requirements, Title VII requires the employer to provide a reasonable accommodation unless doing so would impose an “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” Religious accommodation requests may relate to work schedules, dress or religious expression in the workplace.
In 1977, the Supreme Court indicated in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison that an accommodation creates an undue hardship when it imposes more than a de minimis – or trivial – cost. Since then, lower courts have applied the “more than de minimis” standard to help determine the parameters of the term “undue hardship.”
Now, the Supreme Court has used the case of Gerald Groff – a former Pennsylvania mail carrier who sued the U.S. Postal Service for failing to adequately accommodate his request for Sundays off – to reevaluate its precedent. Justice Samuel Alito, who authored the Groff v. DeJoy opinion, clarified that employers cannot avoid meeting a religious request by arguing that it would cost them more than a de minimis amount. Instead, the opinion stated that the Court now “understands Hardison to mean that ‘undue hardship’ is shown when a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business.”
This is a significant change from the guidance employers have relied on for decades. The decision reinforces the strength of protections for religious employees under Title VII, and makes it clear that employers are expected to do more to accommodate more employees’ religious practices in the workplace. For instance, employers are advised to consider the various options at their disposal to provide an accommodation, and not simply conclude that one form of accommodation poses an undue hardship without looking at possible alternatives.
Unfortunately, the Court declined to determine what facts would meet this new standard and offered limited guidance on how to apply it. Lower courts have been instructed to take a case-by-case approach, assessing in a “common-sense manner” the practical impact of a particular accommodation in light of all relevant factors, including the nature, size and operating cost of the employer’s business.
The Court also clarified that employers may take into account the burdens an accommodation imposes on other employees, as long as those burdens affect the employer’s operations. But the justices did not elaborate on when such burdens on other employees qualify as an undue hardship that relieves an employer of its duty to accommodate.
The Groff case has been remanded to the lower court, and there is likely to be a substantial increase in legal battles as courts attempt to apply this new standard. Now that the Supreme Court has clarified its interpretation of Title VII, Congress may want to consider whether further legislative action is required to balance the rights of religious employees and the burdens placed on their employers and co-workers.
If you are an employer or employee with questions about the impact of the Groff v. DeJoy decision on you or your employer’s accommodation, anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies, we are here to help. Please contact us at 973.707.3322 or LFarber@LFarberLaw.com.
The contents of this writing are intended for general information purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion in any specific facts or circumstances.