13 July 2023

Supreme Court Modifies Employee Religious Accommodation Standard

In Groff v. DeJoy, the Supreme Court recently “clarified” the Title VII standard that a covered employer must use to navigate an employee’s religious accommodation request. Because the decision will change how courts assess religious accommodation cases, employers subject to Title VII must consider how their religious accommodation processes may require alteration.

Title VII generally requires employers to accommodate employees’ religious practices and beliefs unless the accommodation would create “undue hardship” for the employer’s business.  For decades, courts nationwide interpreted “undue hardship” to apply to any accommodation that caused more than a “de minimis” cost to an employer (i.e., more than a trivial, minor, or minimal cost).  The standard, established in a case called Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, often gave employers free rein to dismiss some religious accommodation requests – such as voluntary shift-trading to avoid working the Sabbath, or use of vacation time to observe Good Friday – with little effort.  Until Groff.

Groff involved a USPS worker who was required to work Sundays, which was a requirement that violated his Sunday Sabbath religious observation.  Ultimately, Groff resigned because he refused to work Sundays, which led to disciplinary action, and Groff believed that the USPS would ultimately terminate his employment.  Then, he sued the USPS because it failed to accommodate his religious practice.

The lower courts, as they have done for decades, used the de minimis standard and concluded that Groff was not entitled to a religious accommodation.  The lower courts concluded that exemption from Sunday work would impose on Groff’s coworkers, disrupt the workplace and workflow, and hurt employee morale.  However, the Supreme Court clarified that the de minimis standard, as it has been applied for decades, is not the correct standard.  Instead, to deny a religious accommodation, the employer must show that the accommodation would create a burden “substantial in the overall context” of its business to meet Title VII’s undue-hardship defense.  In other words, the employer must show that the accommodation would cause substantial increased costs to the business.

From a practical standpoint, the bottom line is that religious accommodation requests must be handled carefully and involve assessment of the business and the accommodation.  If an employee requests a religious accommodation, the employer must weigh all relevant factors, including the practical impact of the accommodation given the employer’s business, size, and operating costs.  Burdens to customer satisfaction, production efficiency, and revenue, for example, are legitimate factors to consider.   Other factors that are not related to the conduct of the employer’s business, such as whether other employees will feel treated unfairly, are not considered.

In the wake of Groff, employers should train managers and human resources professionals regarding the revised religious accommodation standard.  Employers should additionally review and revise any applicable policies and procedures to reflect the “substantial cost” standard.  Finally, religious accommodation processes will require employers to consider all available accommodations even if the employee has not expressly proposed them.  For example, the USPS must consider a simple Sunday work exemption for employees like Groff; however, if that is not feasible, consideration of other options, such as voluntary shift swapping, is required.

If you have questions about the Groff decision or how it may impact your organization, please contact your Miller Johnson attorney or the authors of this alert.

***Summer Associate, Sydney Blitchok contributed as an author to this client update.***