The Supreme Court Imposes New Obligations on Employers to Accommodate Employees’ Religious Practices
Employees' Religion

In a case decided last month, the U.S. Supreme Court made it more difficult for employers to deny employees’ requests for accommodations for their religious practices, rejecting the understanding of Title VII (the fundamental federal law against employment discrimination) that had been in place for nearly 50 years.  In Groff v. Dejoy, the Court held that an employer must grant an employee’s request for religious accommodation unless it can show that the burden of doing so would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its business.

A Little History
Title VII prohibits employers with at least 15 employees from discriminating on the basis of religion.  (Most states have similar statutes that apply to smaller employers.)  The failure to “reasonably accommodate” an employee’s religious beliefs is a form of discrimination.  In 1977, the Supreme Court was presented with a case in which an employer (TWA) denied the request of an employee (Hardison) that he not be required to work on his Sabbath (sunset Friday through sunset Saturday), because granting the request would have deprived more senior employees of their seniority rights under TWA’s contract with the union (the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers) of which Hardison was a member.  The Court held in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison that Title VII did not require such an accommodation of the employee’s religious beliefs, stating that such an accommodation would result in an “undue hardship” for the employer, and commenting that “[t]o require TWA to bear more than a de minimis cost in order to give Hardison Saturdays off is an undue hardship.”  That comment was cited by numerous courts in the following years, and “de mimimis cost” effectively became the definition of “undue hardship” in religious accommodation cases.  As a result, employers were able to deny requests for accommodations that many might consider relatively minor, such as allowing Muslim women to wear hijabs, allowing Sikh men to wear beards, allowing Jews to take off the High Holy days, and allowing employees to voluntarily trade shifts to accommodate Sabbath observance.

Mr. Groff’s Claim
Mr. Groff worked for the US Postal Service (USPS).  He is an Evangelical Christian who requested that he not be required to work on Sundays. After USPS began making Sunday deliveries for Amazon, Groff was called upon to make Sunday deliveries.  He transferred to a smaller facility that, at the time, did not make deliveries on Sunday.  But in 2017, his unit began making such deliveries.  Groff refused to accept such assignments, and other employees were required to take them.  Some of them complained, and at least one filed a grievance.  Groff received “progressive discipline,” though he was not fired.  In January 2019, he resigned (and claimed, later, that he did so because he expected to be terminated).

Mr. Groff sued USPS under Title VII, asserting that accommodating his religious obligation not to work on Sundays would not have caused “undue hardship on the conduct of [USPS’] business.”  The District Court ruled in favor of USPS, and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, both relying on the Hardison decision.  The Supreme Court took the case in early 2023.

The Supreme Court’s decision
The Supreme Court vacated the decision of the Third Circuit and sent the case back for further proceedings.  While the Court did not overrule its decision in Hardison, it significantly reinterpreted that decision.  The Court said that in the years since Hardison was decided, courts have been mistaken in relying on the phrase “more than a de minimis cost” to define the meaning of “undue hardship.”  The Court noted that the Hardison decision referred repeatedly to the idea of “substantial” burdens and held that the determination of whether a requested accommodation imposes an “undue hardship” requires a fact-specific inquiry into whether it imposes a burden that is substantial in the overall context of the employer’s business.  Or, as the Court put it in a sentence that will no doubt be quoted in numerous future lower court decisions, “[w]e think it is enough to say that an employer must show that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.”  The Court noted that this may include impacts on coworkers, though coworkers’ religious biases or hostility to the accommodation of religious beliefs are not legitimate “costs” to be considered as part of the “undue hardship” analysis.  The Court also observed that if an employer concludes that a particular requested accommodation (e.g., requiring other employees to work overtime) poses an undue hardship, it must consider other options (e.g., voluntary shift swapping) that would enable the accommodation of an employee’s religious practice.

In a concurring opinion (the Court’s opinion in this case was unanimous), Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Jackson, stressed that “undue hardship on the conduct of a business may include undue hardship on the business’s employees.”  Thus, in the view of these two Justices at least, even a relatively inexpensive accommodation may create an undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business if it imposes significant burdens on other employees by, for example, depriving them of bargained-for seniority rights.  Whether this view commands the support of a majority of the Court will likely be determined in a future case.

A Few Observations
Employers should be aware of this shift in the understanding of their obligation to accommodate employee requests for religious accommodations.  Managers who consider such requests should be trained on the new standard.  In general, it seems likely that requests related to rules on appearance should, absent genuine safety issues, generally be granted.  Where an employer determines that it will deny a religious accommodation request, it should be prepared to show the “substantial increased costs” that granting the request would impose on its business.  Arguably, at least, those “costs” need not be purely economic.

It will be particularly interesting to see what impact the Groff decision has on cases now percolating through the court system in which employees have challenged employer refusals, during the COVID pandemic, to grant their requests, purportedly based on religious beliefs, to be excused from vaccine mandates.  Employers may be required to show that allowing such employees to work remotely, or to wear masks and test regularly, would have created an “undue hardship” as now defined.  They may respond that they were relying on federal guidance and/or (at least in some cases) mandates in insisting on vaccination.  Going forward, it seems likely that employers will have to be more willing to grant these types of requests.

Readers with questions about how they should proceed in light of the Groff decision should feel free to contact any of Pullman & Comley’s Labor and Employment Law attorneys.

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