Supreme Court Clarifies Undue Hardship Standard in Religious Accommodation Cases

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Supreme Court Clarifies Undue Hardship Standard in Religious Accommodation Cases

Supreme Court Clarifies Undue Hardship Standard in Religious Accommodation Cases

Last week, the Supreme Court clarified a prior decision that employers used to shirk their obligations under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  That Act requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for an employee’s religious practice so long as the accommodations do not impose an “undue hardship” on the employer’s business. In its 1977 decision Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, the Supreme Court remarked in one passage that an employer is not required to accommodate an employee’s religion if that accommodation would impose a “de minimis” burden on the employer.  As lower courts construed Hardison, this meant that if an employer claimed some minimal burden (effort or cost) on its business stemming from an employee’s religious accommodation, the employer could dodge Title VII’s religious accommodation requirement.

Now, in Groff v. Dejoy, Postmaster General (2023), the Supreme Court has revisited and clarified what the standard is for an “undue hardship” when employers are considering religious accommodations under Title VII.

Groff is an Evangelical Christian who, on religious grounds, believes that Sunday should be devoted to worship and rest. In 2012, Groff began to work with the United States Postal Service (“USPS”) as a Rural Carrier Associate.  At the time, USPS typically did not require Sunday work for Rural Carrier Associates.  But after USPS agreed to deliver packages for Amazon on Sundays, USPS required many postal workers, including Rural Carrier Associates, to work Sundays. Groff requested a religious accommodation to observe the dictate that Sunday be devoted to worship and rest. Initially, USPS provided an accommodation by requiring other postal workers to complete Sunday deliveries, instead of Groff. Employees eventually complained about this arrangement and Groff received “progressive discipline” from USPS for not working on Sundays. Ultimately, Groff resigned and later sued USPS under Title VII, arguing that USPS could have accommodated his request to practice his religion without undue hardship on their business.

The District Court granted summary judgment to USPS, and the Third Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed.  Those courts held that Groff’s request required USPS to bear more than a “de minimis” cost in providing a religious accommodation, and was therefore an undue hardship, relying on the widely held construction of Hardison’s standard. The Supreme Court reversed and held that the lower courts applied an incorrect standard. The Court observed that the “de minimis” language only appears in a single sentence in the Hardison opinion, whereas the opinion repeatedly states that a religious accommodation is not required when it entails ‘substantial’ costs or expenditures. Further, the Hardison case’s holding relied in part on provisions of Title VII that address labor organizations’ bona fide seniority systems. Those provisions did not apply to Groff’s claims. For these reasons, the Court held that Hardison’s reference to “de minimis” burden was not meant to be an authoritative interpretation of “undue hardship” or take on a large role in statutory interpretation.

In its decision for Groff, the Court expressly clarified the meaning of “undue hardship” under Title VII for religious accommodations. Relying on the common understanding of the language in the text of Title VII, the Court unequivocally stated that “undue hardship” means something very different than a “de minimis” burden.  Undue hardship is shown when a burden is “substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business.”  That is, under Groff, where a religious accommodation would result in substantial increased cost in relation to the conduct of a particular business, an employer meets the undue hardship standard.

In reviewing and clarifying the undue hardship standard, the Supreme Court left the factual inquiry of whether Groff’s religious accommodation created an undue hardship for the USPS to the lower courts.

This newly articulated standard makes clear that employers must not deny religious accommodations simply because those accommodations inconvenience the employer. Rather, employers are now held to a higher standard in considering their employee’s religious accommodation requests, which protects employees’ Title VII rights.

If you believe your employer has violated your workplace rights, contact Bryan Schwartz Law, P.C..

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