Employers need to consider employees’ requests for religious accommodations from a much more supportive perspective as a result of a recent decision from the U.S. Supreme Court. In Groff v. DeJoy (June 29, 2023) the Court held that that an employer denying an employee’s request for a religious accommodation must demonstrate that the requested accommodation would impose a “substantial burden” in the overall context of the employer’s business. The Court’s holding modified long-standing guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and nearly 50 years of prior court decisions that had imposed a lesser accommodation standard.
The Situation Considered by the Court
The Supreme Court considered the issue in the context of a complaint filed by Gerald Groff, who had a mail delivery job with the U.S. Postal Service. Groff is an Evangelical Christian who believes that Sundays should be dedicated to worship and rest, not work. His mail delivery job initially did not involve much work on Sunday, but then changed to include Sunday deliveries for a contract for Amazon. Groff transferred to a different station that did not require Sunday deliveries, but that station then changed to include Sunday deliveries. Groff continued to refuse working on Sunday and received progressive discipline for not doing so until he resigned. Groff asserted that USPS should have accommodated his religious observance.
The Legal Context and the Court’s Analysis
The Supreme Court last addressed the standard for a religious accommodation request back in 1977, in that case (Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison) involving a Saturday Sabbath observer seeking an accommodation from his employer, TWA. In that opinion, the Court stated that, “[T]o require TWA to bear more than a de minimis cost in order to give Hardison Saturdays off is an undue hardship.” Subsequent decisions by lower courts have applied a “de minimis cost” standard to requests for religious accommodation, which often has meant denying the accommodation requests, particularly for accommodations that might require hiring additional workers or paying other employees overtime to provide coverage.
In Groff, the Supreme Court stated that its “de minimis” reference in the earlier TWA case was taken out of context and should not be regarded “as the authoritative interpretation of the statutory term ‘undue hardship.’” While cautioning that it was not writing “a blank slate” in determining religious accommodations, the Court held that “hardship is more severe than a mere burden,” and should include consideration of all factors at hand, in the context of each accommodation request, and the practical impact relative to the size and operating cost of the employer. The Court further emphasized that the obligation is not merely to assess the reasonableness of a particular accommodation, but also to consider alternatives that may address the employee’s need without presenting an undue hardship. For a Sabbath observer, that may include considering the feasibility of voluntary shift swapping if forcing other employees to work overtime would be an undue hardship.
Where that Leaves Employers
This does not present unfamiliar territory for employers, just a different context. The Groff decision means that employers need to give more careful consideration to employees’ requests for religious accommodations. The “substantial” burden standard now set by the Supreme Court for religion cases appears to be very similar to the standard employers have already been applying with regard to requests for accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The EEOC’s guidance on the ADA provides that accommodations that impose significant expense or difficulty may present an undue hardship when considering factors such as:
- the employer’s size and financial resources,
- the nature and structure of its operation, and
- the impact of the accommodation on operations.
Employers should now be evaluating requests for religious accommodation with consideration of those same factors.
By Tracey I. Levy