U.S. Supreme Court Raises the Bar for Employers to Deny Religious Accommodations


On June 29, 2023, in a 9-0 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Groff v. DeJoy that under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), an employer denying 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, a former U.S. Postal Service mail deliverer, is also 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 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) regulations, employers are obligated “to make reasonable accommodations to the religious needs of employees” if 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 if granting the accommodation would result in more than a de minimis cost to the employer.  Applying the de minimis cost standard, the federal district court and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Groff held the 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 now show 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 raises the bar for employers when processing requests for accommodations they are legally required to provide under Title VII, and may 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 with California law regarding religious accommodations. Specifically, the California Workplace Religious Freedom Act of 2012  already defines undue hardship as an action requiring “significant difficulty or expense” when  taking into account the overall financial resources of the facility involved in the accommodation, the overall financial resources of the employer, and the impact of the accommodation upon the operation of the facility, among other factors.

Please contact the authors or your AALRR counsel if you have questions in this regard, or require guidance on providing accommodations under state or federal law.

This alert was originally written by AALRR Partner Joseph Pelochino, a member of the Firm’s private sector employment law group.  For district and county office specific questions, please use the links to the side to contact the co-authors.

This AALRR publication is intended for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon in reaching a conclusion in a particular area of law. Applicability of the legal principles discussed may differ substantially in individual situations. Receipt of this or any other AALRR publication does not create an attorney-client relationship. AALRR is not responsible for inadvertent errors that may occur in the publishing process. 

© 2023 Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo



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