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  • Writer's pictureAlexander J. Kemeny

Supreme Court Clarifies Standard for Religious Accommodations in Case Involving Sabbath Observance

Title VII of the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on their religious practices, unless the employer can demonstrate that the employee's religious practice cannot be accommodated without causing “undue hardship.” On June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court reached a unanimous decision in the case of Groff v. DeJoy, 600 U.S. 447 (2023), that provides additional clarity about the “undue hardship” and how it should be applied. The Supreme Court ruled a minor burden does not constitute an "undue hardship" that would justify an employer's refusal to accommodate an employee's religious beliefs. Under Title VII, employers are required to accommodate an employees’ religious beliefs unless except when they can demonstrate that doing so would lead to “substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of” their business operations.


Employment Law Religious Discrimination Decision

The case was initiated by Gerald Groff, a Postal Service employee and Evangelical Christian, who declined to deliver packages on Sundays in observance of the Sunday Sabbath. Groff asked that his colleagues cover his Sunday shifts. The Postal Service initially agreed to this arrangement, but later withdrew the accommodation, arguing that Groff’s Sunday absences placed an undue burden on his colleagues by requiring them to work additional shifts and handle extra mail. Despite this, Groff continued to refuse Sunday work. He faced progressive disciplinary action, eventually resigned, and filed a lawsuit against the Postal Service under Title VII for failing to accommodate his religious observance.


The District Court ruled in favor of the Postal Service, a decision upheld by the Third Circuit. The latter based its decision on language from Trans World Airlines Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977), a 1977 U.S. Supreme Court decision issued in 1977, which suggested that any cost “more than a de minimis cost” incurred by an employer to accommodate an employee’s religious observance constitutes an “undue hardship.”


The question in Groff v. DeJoy was whether the precedent that appeared to have been established in the Hardison decision should be overturned in favor of requiring the employer to bear a greater cost to establish an “undue hardship.” Interestingly, both parties agreed that a greater cost was appropriate, but disagreed on the extent of that cost. Groff argued for a “significant difficulty or expense,” while the Postal Service suggested “substantial expenditures” or “substantial additional costs.”


Justice Alito, writing for the unanimous Court, found a compromise, defining an “undue hardship” as a burden that would significantly increase costs relative to the conduct of its particular business. He described this as a “context-specific standard” and instructed lower courts to apply the test considering all relevant factors in the case, including the specific accommodations requested and their practical impact given the nature, size, and operating cost of the employer.


The Supreme Court characterized its opinion as a “clarification” of Hardison, describing the “de minimis” reference in that decision as a frequently quoted sentence that, if taken literally, suggested that even a small cost might be too much for an employer to bear. The Groff decision explains that an undue burden occurs only when the employer can demonstrate “substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.”


Employers should keep in mind that state laws may impose a standard for accommodating religious practice differs from the standard Federal Civil Rights Act as interpreted in Groff. Moreover, the implications of Groff are not yet fully understood and Supreme Court stopped short of providing a more precise test.


When an employee requests a religious based accommodation to a work schedule, duties, or conditions, the employer should first consider several issues. The employer should identify the specific conflict between the employee's religious practice and their work requirements. Employers may want to ask for additional information and details about the religious belief and nature of accommodation being sought. The employer should keep in mind that the final accommodation does not have to be the one initially requested. A court will consider the reasonableness of the accommodation, the conflict due to the sincerely held religious practice, and the interaction between the employer and employee. If challenged in court, the employer should be able to demonstrate a financial impact or adverse business outcome if the accommodation were granted.

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