Taking on nearly 50 years of precedent, the U.S. Supreme Court has unanimously rejected the standard long applied in determining when employers must grant religious accommodations.

Simply put, this decision means that employers will have to demonstrate a greater level of harm before they deny a religious accommodation request based on an undue hardship on the employer.

Many employers recently encountered religious accommodation requests for the first time in the context of COVID-19 vaccine requirements.  Even as the frequency of these kinds of requests have waned with the pandemic, employers are well advised to be mindful of the Court’s recent decision and how it may impact their handling of future religious accommodation requests.

How did we get here?

The case, Groff v. DeJoy, involved a United States Postal Service (USPS) mail carrier (Groff) who refused to work on Sundays because his religious beliefs prohibited him from doing so. 

“Mail on Sunday?” you may ask. Here the issue arose after the USPS contracted with Amazon to make certain Sunday deliveries for the company.  Groff originally transferred to a location that was not tasked with Sunday deliveries.  After that location also took on Sunday deliveries, other employees were asked to voluntarily cover the Sunday shifts but were not always willing or available to do so and Groff received progressive discipline for refusing to work Sundays. 

Ultimately, Groff resigned and sued the Postmaster General alleging that the USPS violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by failing to accommodate his religious beliefs.  The District Court found for USPS and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that decision.  Groff appealed to the Supreme Court which accepted the case. 

There is no dispute that, under Title VII, employers must accommodate an employee’s religious practices unless doing so would impose an “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.”   Rather, the central question in the Groff case was what constitutes an “undue hardship” in relation to an employer’s religious accommodation obligations.

Drawing upon language from a 1977 Supreme Court Case (Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison), many lower courts have traditionally applied a “more than de minimis” standard when assessing religious accommodation cases.  In other words, an undue hardship has been found to exist, thereby excusing the employer from making a religious accommodation, where the accommodation would require the employer to bear more than a de minimis cost or burden.

The Supreme Court’s Groff Decision

In its recent ruling in Groff, the Supreme Court expressly rejected the de minimis burden test.  In doing so, the Court noted that Title VII’s use of the term “undue” implies something more than de minimus or “small and trifling”. 

Ultimately, the Court held that to establish an undue burden “[a]n 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 emphasized that determining whether “a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business” will require a fact specific inquiry into the exact nature of the specific business and the situation.  Looking at some of the most common scenarios, the Court noted that the fact that an accommodation might affect the employee’s co-workers or require the employer to pay other employees overtime, would not automatically establish an undue hardship.  Rather, it will all be a matter of context.  The Supreme Court remanded the case to the lower court to apply the newly stated standard to the specific facts of the case.   

Of note, while the Court’s decision raised the bar for employers to establish undue hardship in the context of a religious accommodation request, the Court declined to hold that the same standard applies to religious accommodation requests as applies to requests for accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The long established threshold for what constitutes an undue hardship under the ADA is very high.

While we will have to wait and see how things play out in light of the Court’s new ruling, the burden of proving an undue hardship under the ADA will, most likely, continue to be greater than that for showing undue hardship in the religious accommodation context. 

So what does all of this mean for employers?

This case emphasizes the importance of ensuring that any employee or agent who is tasked with responding to requests for accommodation – whether based on religion, disability, or some other protected category – understands the law in this area and knows when to seek expert input.  Refusing to grant a requested accommodation can be a serious and costly but avoidable misstep. 

With the Groff decision the burden on employers to justify why they have declined to provide a religious accommodation will be greater.  Not only should employers be mindful of this going forward, but they should also consider and revisit recent religious accommodation requests and decisions to determine whether they hold up under the new standard.

For more information on this ruling and other issues related to religious accommodation requests, contact Jessie at 301-657-3442 or [email protected].