The U.S. Supreme Court Raises the Bar on Employers' Denial of Employees' Religious Accommodation Requests
Posted June 30, 2023

On June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court of the United States issued its unanimous decision in Groff v. DeJoy, redefining the standard that employers must meet before denying an employee’s request for religious accommodation. The newly-minted standard provides, “Title VII requires an employer that denies a religious accommodation to show that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.” The full opinion can be found here.

In the DeJoy case, Gerald Groff, an evangelical Christian, took a part-time Rural Carrier Associate job at the United States Postal Service (USPS). Groff’s position at USPS did not initially involve Sunday work. USPS later contracted with Amazon to deliver packages on Sundays. Groff objected to working on Sundays for religious reasons, and he transferred to a smaller USPS station in Holtwood, Pennsylvania that did not do Sunday deliveries. Amazon’s inexorable expansion continued, and soon even the Holtwood USPS station was handling Amazon’s Sunday deliveries. Groff remained unwilling to work on Sundays, which forced other Holtwood employees to cover Groff’s delivery work.

USPS issued ongoing disciplinary notices to Geoff for refusing to work on Sundays and Groff finally resigned. Groff then sued USPS under Title VII, “…asserting that USPS could have accommodated his Sunday Sabbath practice ‘without undue hardship on the conduct of [USPS’s] business.’” Both lower courts ruled in favor of USPS based on the 1977 case of Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, which held that “requiring an employer ‘to bear more than a de minimis cost’ to provide a religious accommodation is an undue hardship.” Groff appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States, and the Court granted his petition for a writ of certiorari.

The key issue in this case was whether the Hardison undue hardship standard was the correct standard to be applied. Interestingly, all nine judges and both parties agreed that it was not. Thus, the Court issued a new standard, stating, “We think it is enough to say that an 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 clarified further, “What matters more than a favored synonym for ‘undue hardship’ is that courts must apply the test in a manner that takes into account all relevant factors in the case at hand, including the particular accommodations at issue and their practical impact in light of the nature, size and operating cost of [the] employer.” Notably, the Supreme Court did not resolve whether Groff’s particular request for a religious accommodation to USPS should have been granted. Instead, the Court remanded the case to the lower court to reevaluate Groff’s request under the new undue hardship standard established by the Supreme Court.

What does this mean for employers? Employers will have to take a closer look at their employee’s reasonable requests for religious accommodation, and may need to grant requests that would have been denied under the Hardison de minimis standard. Employers should exercise caution while awaiting further guidance on the application of this new undue hardship standard. What we know for certain is that employers cannot avoid granting a request for religious accommodation if doing so would impose negligible costs on the employer or its operations. Rather, employers now must show “substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.” A hardship on co-workers and supervisors or increased overtime costs may not fit within this new legal test, especially for larger employers.

For questions regarding religious accommodation or assistance with other employment law issues, contact the attorneys at LightGabler.

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