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June 07, 2024

U.S. Supreme Court Ruling in Groff v. DeJoy Clarifies Heightened Standard for Evaluating Religious Accommodations

Natalie Pattison

The U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2023 ruling in Groff v. DeJoy constitutes a major change in the legal landscape involving religious accommodation in the workplace. The Court’s decision clarified a heightened standard for determining whether a religious accommodation causes “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Under Title VII, employers must reasonably accommodate an employee’s “religious observance and practice” unless the employer shows that such accommodation would cause “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” Under the long-recognized and familiar standard for showing undue hardship, employers were not obligated to provide a religious accommodation if the accommodation posed more than a “de minimis cost” on the employer. The “de minimis cost” standard was a relatively low bar for employers to meet—especially in comparison to the much higher standard under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires a showing that the accommodation imposes “significant difficulty or expense” for undue hardship. 

The Groff case involved a postal worker, Gerald Groff, who sued the United States Postal Service (USPS) for failing to provide him a religious accommodation. Groff, an evangelical Christian, requested an accommodation that would exempt him from working on Sundays because he believed that Sunday should be devoted to worship and rest, not work, for religious reasons. Although USPS arranged schedules so that Groff wouldn’t have to work on Sundays, including having other carriers cover his Sunday shifts, there were times when these efforts failed due to a shortage of available carriers. Groff eventually resigned after receiving discipline for his refusal to work on Sundays.

Groff sued his employer for failure to reasonably accommodate his religious belief and practices, arguing USPS could have accommodated his request for exemption from work on Sundays without imposing undue hardship on the conduct of USPS’s business. 

The Court held that showing more than a de minimis cost is no longer sufficient to qualify as undue hardship under Title VII. Instead, and without deciding whether Groff should have been accommodated in this case, the Court clarified that Title VII requires an employer that denies a religious accommodation to show that the burden of granting the religious accommodation would result in “substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.”

The Court’s decision included review of, among other things, ordinary meaning. In considering ordinary meaning, the Court reasoned that undue hardship “means something very different from a burden that is merely more than de minimis, i.e., something that is ‘very small or trifling.’” The Court also reviewed the 1977 decision in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977), which has been interpreted as holding undue hardship means de minimis cost. The Court stopped short of overturning Hardison but explained that that the de minimis interpretation of Hardison is erroneous and showing “more than a de minimis cost as that phrase is used in common parlance, does not suffice to establish undue hardship under Title VII.”

With respect to the new “substantial increased costs” standard, the Court explained that employers must take into account “all relevant factors in the case at hand, including the particular accommodation at issue and their practical impact in light of the nature, size, and operating cost of an employer.”

The Court gave a few indications of  what may or may not constitute undue hardship under the substantial increased cost standard. For example, the Court stated that a coworker’s dislike of a certain religious expression is not enough for undue hardship, nor are impacts on coworkers unless there are corresponding effects on the “conduct of the business.” The Court also stated that if an employer faces a situation similar to the one presented in Groff, it is not enough for the employer to deny the accommodation because it would require other workers to work overtime. Rather, the employer would have to evaluate other options, such as voluntary shift swapping. In other words, the employer cannot simply analyze whether one accommodation is reasonable; the employer must try to find a way to accommodate the employee.

Notably, the Court suggested that “a good deal of the EEOC’s guidance in this area is sensible and will, in all likelihood, be unaffected by our clarifying decision today.” The Court also declined to align the undue hardship standard under Title VII with that under the ADA. Thus, the ADA standard of “significant difficulty or expense” is still a higher bar for employers to reach than the substantial increased cost standard announced by the Court in Groff.

The Groff decision changes the way religious accommodation requests should be evaluated when determining whether the accommodation would cause undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business. Looking ahead, employee requests for religious accommodations will need to be more carefully considered and documented, regardless of whether those requests are for exemption from a vaccine mandate or for break, shift, or job duty modifications.

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Natalie Pattison

Barran Liebman LLP

Natalie Pattison is an attorney at Barran Liebman LLP, where she defends employers against a variety of employment-related claims, including claims of discrimination, retaliation, wrongful discharge, and wage and hour violations. In addition to providing satisfactory resolution when the need for litigation arises, Natalie proactively counsels management in effective workplace policies to comply with the latest legislative changes at state and federal levels.