U.S. Supreme Court Lowers the Bar for Employees to Obtain Religious Accommodations
On June 29, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Groff v. DeJoy that under Title VII, an employer that denies a religious accommodation has the burden of establishing that granting the accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.
The plaintiff, Gerald Groff, was a mail deliverer for the U.S. Postal Service, and an Evangelical Christian who believes for religious reasons that Sunday should be devoted to worship and rest, and not work. After being disciplined for refusing to work shifts on Sundays, Groff resigned from his position and sued his former employer for religious discrimination under Title VII.
Under Title VII and EEOC regulations, employers are obligated “to make reasonable accommodations to the religious needs of employees” whenever doing so would not create undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.
Prior interpretations of the Supreme Court’s 1977 decision in Trans World Airlines v. Hardison had long held that employers could show undue hardship by establishing that granting the accommodation would result in more than a de minimis cost to the employer. Based on those holdings, the federal district court and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Groff held that Groff’s requested accommodation would create an undue hardship because it negatively impacted Groff’s co-workers who had to fill in for him on Sundays, and because it disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale.
The Supreme Court disagreed and made clear 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 business.” In applying the test, courts must take into account all relevant factors in the case at hand, including the practical impact of the accommodation in light of the nature, size, and operating cost of an employer. The Court further explained, "faced with an accommodation request like Groff's, an employer must do more than conclude that forcing other employees to work overtime would constitute an undue hardship. Consideration of other options would also be necessary." The Court also reaffirmed prior EEOC guidance that no undue hardship is imposed by “temporary costs, voluntary shift swapping, occasional shift swapping, or administrative costs.”
The new standard will impose greater burdens on employers in the accommodations they are legally required to provide under Title VII, and will make it more difficult for employers to prevail if a denial of accommodation is challenged in court.
The higher standard under Title VII brings federal law closer in line to state law requirements in California. In the context of requests for religious accommodation, the California Workplace Religious Freedom Act of 2012 (WRFA) requires that employers demonstrate “significant difficulty or expense” in order to establish undue hardship if a request for religious accommodation was granted, taking into account the overall financial resources of the facility involved in the accommodation, and the overall financial resources of the employer, among other factors.
Please do not hesitate to contact the author or your AALRR counsel regarding questions on these issues and guidance on providing accommodations under state or federal law.