U.S. Supreme Court Upends Religious Accommodation Obligations for Employers
- In Groff v. De Joy, Post Master General, the U.S. Supreme Court fundamentally redefined how employers must evaluate religious accommodation requests.
- Employers who deny a requested accommodation must be able to demonstrate that the accommodation would have a substantial negative impact on the conduct of the employer's business.
- This Holland & Knight alert examines how the decision affects the ways employers should prepare for and respond to requests for religious accommodation by employees.
In Groff v. De Joy, Post Master General, No. 22-174 (June 29, 2023), the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upended decades-old precedent that set the standard for undue hardship in the context of an employee's request for a religious accommodation. In Groff, the Court rejected the notion that the expenditure of more than a de minimis effort or cost is an undue hardship sufficient to deny an employee's request for an accommodation for religious beliefs or practices. Rather, the Court held that undue hardship requires the employer to show a substantial cost to the employer. What constitutes a substantial cost is determined based on the particular employer. (What may be a substantial cost to a smaller employer may not be considered substantial to a larger employer.) Notably, the Court also addressed an employer's obligations to consider alternate reasonable accommodations for religious practices and observances.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it unlawful for covered employers to discriminate against an employee or prospective employee on the basis of the individual's religion. Title VII also gives employees an entitlement to a workplace accommodation for their religious beliefs and practices (such as not working on the Sabbath or being allowed time during the workday to pray). However, this entitlement to an accommodation is subject to the employer's right to deny an accommodation request if granting the request would cause an undue hardship.
In Hardison v. TWA, 432 U.S. 63, 84 (1977), the Supreme Court tackled the issue of undue hardship. TWA hired Larry Hardison to work in a department that played an essential role in TWA's business operations. During his employment, Hardison underwent a religious conversion and began observing the Sabbath. Initially, he was able to choose his days off and observe the Sabbath because of his seniority. Sometime later, he transferred to another department where he lacked seniority and was unable to avoid working on the Sabbath. Hardison was discharged for insubordination for refusing to work on the Sabbath. The principal issue before the Supreme Court was whether Title VII requires an employer and a union who have agreed on a seniority system to deprive senior employees of their seniority rights in order to accommodate a junior employee's religious practice. In answering in the negative, the Court held that to require TWA to bear more than a de minimis cost to give Hardison Saturdays off was an undue hardship. Since Hardison was decided, both the lower courts and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) have latched on to a de minimis standard as the basis to decide whether a requested religious accommodation constituted an undue hardship. In Groff, the Court held that the lower courts have been misreading and misapplying Hardison for 50 years.
The Facts in Groff
Gerald Groff is an Evangelical Christian who worked for the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) until he resigned in 2019. In 2017, Groff's rural post office branch began making Sunday deliveries for Amazon, which impacted his ability to observe Sunday as a religious day of rest. Although the USPS made accommodations to cover his Sunday shifts, it issued Groff progressive discipline when he refused to work on Sundays. After resigning, he filed a lawsuit for religious discrimination.
The Lower Court Decisions in Groff
The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted summary judgment for the USPS, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the decision, in part because the requested accommodation imposed more than a de minimis cost on the USPS. The Third Circuit explained that Groff's refusal to work on Sundays disrupted the workplace and workflow and diminished employee morale.
The Supreme Court's Decision in Groff
The Supreme Court reversed the lower courts and held that undue hardship in the context of a requested religious accommodation is established when a burden is substantial in the overall context of the employer's business. According to the Court, the mere showing of more than a de minimis cost, as that phrase is used in common parlance, does not establish undue hardship under Title VII. Undue hardship is assessed on a case-by-case basis, looking at the impact the accommodation would have on the conduct of the employer's business and taking into account the nature, size and operating cost of the employer.
The impact of an accommodation on co-workers is not necessarily relevant or determinative in every case. The focus is on how the accommodation affects the conduct of the business. For example, it is not enough for an employer to conclude that because an accommodation would force co-workers to work overtime, the accommodation necessarily constitutes undue hardship. The employer needs to show that the required overtime work by co-workers would substantially affect the conduct of the business. Moreover, even if a requested accommodation would be an undue hardship, employers must consider other options that meet the employee's religious needs but would not be an undue hardship, such as voluntary shift-swapping.
Groff redefines the analysis of undue hardship in the religious accommodation context. Employers should reevaluate their protocols in addressing employee requests for religious accommodations, focusing on the practical effect that granting the accommodation would have on the conduct of the employer's business. Employers who deny a requested accommodation should be prepared to demonstrate the substantial negative impact that granting the accommodation would have on its conduct of the business. They also need to consider alternative effective accommodations. This is similar to the approach an employer must take in response to accommodation requests based on an employee's disability.
Information contained in this alert is for the general education and knowledge of our readers. It is not designed to be, and should not be used as, the sole source of information when analyzing and resolving a legal problem, and it should not be substituted for legal advice, which relies on a specific factual analysis. Moreover, the laws of each jurisdiction are different and are constantly changing. This information is not intended to create, and receipt of it does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship. If you have specific questions regarding a particular fact situation, we urge you to consult the authors of this publication, your Holland & Knight representative or other competent legal counsel.