Supreme Court raises the bar for denying religious accommodations
In a unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court has decided that the appropriate standard for rejecting or making a reasonable accommodation for employees’ religious needs is whether granting an accommodation would substantially increase costs in relation to the conduct of the organization’s particular business.
Today’s decision in Groff v. DeJoy says employers that want to deny a request for religious accommodation now face a far greater burden than the minimal burden that they have had to meet for 46 years. The Supreme Court last addressed the issue of religious accommodations in 1977 in a case called TWA v. Hardison.
Gerald celebrates the Sabbath on Sundays. He worked as a part-time U.S. Postal Service driver, but never on Sundays. Then Amazon contracted with the post office to deliver Amazon Prime purchases on Sundays. Gerald requested a reasonable accommodation of taking every Sunday off. His supervisor agreed and Gerald swapped shifts with other drivers willing to work on Sundays.
Later, the supervisor transferred Gerald to a delivery location that did not deliver packages on Sundays. But the Amazon business quickly grew, and soon Gerald’s location began delivering on Sundays. At first, Gerald was able to swap shifts with his supervisor’s help.
But then Gerald’s co-workers began expressing resentment that they had to work every Sunday, and they refused to swap shifts. After 20 Sunday shifts went unfilled, the post office told Gerald it could not reasonably accommodate his continued Sunday absences.
Gerald quit and filed a Title VII religious discrimination lawsuit. A federal district court initially ruled in Gerald’s favor, but the post office appealed. It argued it had already done enough to accommodate Gerald’s religious needs. The 3rd Circuit agreed, and Gerald appealed that decision to the Supreme Court.
Since TWA v. Hardison was decided in 1977, the standard for denying a religious reasonable accommodation had been whether the accommodation would create an “undue hardship” for the employer. It was a de minimis test that required the employer to show the accommodation would involve more than a trivial or minimal cost before turning the request down.
Gerald asked the court to raise the standard to approve the accommodation unless it imposed significant difficulty or cost—a far higher burden.
Today’s unanimous decision says courts—and by extension employers—must take into account all relevant factors, including the particular accommodations at issue and their practical impact in light of the nature of the employer’s business, its size and its operating costs.
Of particular note is that the court dismissed the impact of granting an accommodation on co-workers, writing:
“Further, a hardship that is attributable to employee animosity to a particular religion, to religion in general, or to the very notion of accommodating religious practice,
cannot be considered ‘undue.’ Bias or hostility to a religious practice or accommodation cannot supply a defense…. 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.” (Groff v. DeJoy, No. 22-174, U.S. Supreme Court, 2023)
Review your process for making decisions about religious reasonable accommodations to conform to the Supreme Court’s new undue-hardship standard.
You should expect more religious accommodation requests as a result of this decision. Don’t be surprised if you receive new requests from employees whose previous requests for religious accommodations you denied.
When reviewing requests, don’t focus solely on co-worker objections and the inconvenience accommodations may cause for them. Focus instead on the negative effect accommodations might have on your operations and costs. However, understand there is now a new expectation: that religious accommodation requests must be granted unless there is a substantial negative impact on your operations and costs.
Watch your email inbox on Wednesday, July 5, for a video analysis of Groff v. DeJoy from our legal expert Anniken Davenport, who will explain the implications of the decision for your organization.