Supreme Court Revises Standard for Requiring Employers to Provide Religious Accommodations

Labor & Employment

On June 29, 2023, in Groff v. DeJoy, the U.S. Supreme Court held that an employer cannot deny a religious accommodation request under Title VII unless the employer can demonstrate that the burden of granting the accommodation would result in substantially increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business. In a unanimous decision authored by Justice Alito, the Supreme Court imposed a higher standard for employers when determining whether an employee’s religious accommodation request imposes an undue hardship.

Pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it is 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 or employment, because of such individual’s…religion.” 42 U.S. Code § 2000e-2(a)(1). Additionally, EEOC regulations require that employers provide workers with religious accommodations unless it would impose an undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business. 29 CFR § 1605.

For years, the 1977 Supreme Court decision, Trans World Airlines Inc. v. Hardison, has been viewed by lower courts as the authoritative interpretation of the term “undue hardship.” In Trans World Airlines Inc. v. Hardison, TWA operated 24 hours a day throughout the year. TWA denied Hardison’s request for a religious accommodation, in the form of an exemption from working on Saturdays, and discharged Hardison for refusing to work on Saturdays. The Supreme Court concluded that the employer’s actions did not violate Title VII. Although the opinion barely focused on the question of what amounts to undue hardship, lower courts have focused on a single reference to “de minimis cost” in the opinion. Consequently, lower courts have interpreted Trans World Airlines Inc. v. Hardison to mean an undue hardship can be established by showing merely that the religious accommodation would impose a minor, de minimis cost on the employer.

In Groff v. Dejoy, Groff, an evangelical Christian and former carrier for the US Postal Service (USPS), objected to delivering packages on Sundays due to his observance of the Sunday Sabbath. Early on Groff’s position did not involve working on Sundays, however that changed after the USPS contracted with Amazon to deliver packages on Sundays. Groff requested an accommodation to avoid working on Sundays, but his request was denied. In response, Groff refused to work on Sundays and repeatedly received discipline for failing to work on Sundays. He eventually resigned from his position with the USPS.

Groff sued the USPS, asserting that it violated Title VII by failing to provide him with a religious accommodation. The district court granted summary judgment to the USPS and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision. Relying on Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, the Third Circuit found that the de minimis cost test had been met, thus Groff’s religious accommodation request imposed an undue hardship on the employer.

On his petition for a writ of certiorari, Groff asserted that the Supreme Court should adopt the Americans with Disabilities Act’s (ADA) stricter undue hardship standard, which defined undue hardship as an “action requiring significant difficulty or expense” and required the consideration of several factors, including the resources of the employer and the nature of the employer’s operations.

Conversely, the United States argued against the adoption of the ADA’s undue hardship standard. Instead, the United States asserted that the “substantial additional costs” and “substantial expenditures” language from Hardison should be utilized to define undue hardship.

Notably, the Supreme Court did not adopt the ADA’s stricter undue hardship standard, nor did it overrule Trans World Airlines Inc. v. Hardison. Rather, the Supreme Court clarified the undue hardship standard, noting that the lower courts have improperly latched on to the looser, de minimis language in Trans World Airlines Inc. v. Hardison, which enabled employers to deny most religious accommodations requests. The Court focused on the plain meaning of the phrase “undue hardship,” reasoning that it means something more than a burden that is merely de minimis. The Court pointed to the “substantial additional costs” and “substantial expenditures” language in Hardison and explained that an undue hardship must result in substantial costs in relation to the conduct of an employer’s business.

In addition to tightening the undue hardship standard, the Supreme Court emphasized two points. First, employers must evaluate the effect of the accommodation on the conduct of the employer’s business. The Supreme Court reasoned that the impact on coworkers was not relevant unless it affected the conduct of the business as a whole. Furthermore, the Court made clear that employee animosity, bias, or hostility towards a particular religion does not constitute an undue burden. Second, the Court urged employers to remember that it is not just an assessment of the reasonableness of an accommodation, but whether the employer could reasonably accommodate an employee’s practice of religion.

Accordingly, the Supreme Court vacated the holding in Groff v. Dejoy and remanded the case so that the lower court could apply the new standard and decide whether the USPS violated Title VII when it denied Groff’s request for a religious accommodation.

Justice Sotomayor authored the concurrence, joined by Justice Jackson. The concurring opinion commended the majority’s refusal to overrule Trans World Airlines Inc. v. Hardison and agreed that the de minimis test was improper. However, the concurring opinion stressed that when considering whether an accommodation imposes an undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business, it may also be necessary to consider the impact on other employees.

Employers should be aware that the new undue hardship standard will likely make it easier for employees to seek religious accommodations.

Calfee’s Labor and Employment attorneys are available to answer questions relating to compliance with Title VII and to assist with or provide training to employers responding to religious accommodation requests.

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