Employers face a higher standard for denying religious accommodations
U.S. Supreme Court ruling raises the bar on proving ‘undue hardship’
The U.S. Supreme Court in Groff v. DeJoy recently “clarified” what an employer must show in federal religious discrimination cases to prove that granting a religious accommodation would create an undue hardship on the employer’s business.
The Supreme Court had not considered this “undue hardship” standard for accommodating employees’ religious beliefs since 1977, when it decided TWA v. Hardison, which mentioned that an employer bearing “more than a de minimis cost” is an undue hardship. This recent decision, however, rejected that de minimis language and held that an employer must meet a higher burden of showing substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of the employer’s particular business in order to justify denial of a religious accommodation.
Under federal law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it unlawful for covered employers “to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s … religion.”
Title VII further requires employers to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious observances, practices, and beliefs unless doing so would result in an “undue hardship to the conduct of the employer’s business.” The statute does not define “undue hardship,” and prior to the adoption of this new “substantial” standard many lower courts had been relying on the de minimis language of the Hardison case.
Gerald Groff worked as a mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service. When he started, his job did not involve working Sundays. That changed a year later when the USPS began facilitating Sunday deliveries for Amazon. Groff’s religious beliefs prohibited him from working on Sundays in observance of the Sabbath. Groff transferred to a small rural USPS station that did not require Sunday deliveries. This job change worked for years until that rural station also began making Sunday deliveries for Amazon.
Groff continued to refuse to work any Sundays. USPS initially tried to accommodate Groff’s scheduling request by making arrangements on some occasions for other employees at the rural facility to make deliveries even if their jobs did not involve delivering the mail and at other times it redistributed the deliveries to workers assigned to USPS’s regional hub.
Co-workers complained about Groff’s absences and the consequences of exempting him from Sunday work. During this time, USPS continued to issue Groff “progressive discipline” for not working as scheduled. Groff ultimately resigned. He then sued USPS, claiming religious discrimination because the company could have accommodated his Sunday Sabbath practice without undue hardship on USPS’s business.
‘Undue hardship” standard
In determining the meaning of “undue hardship” under Title VII, the Supreme Court turned to the actual language used in the statute.
Quoting from various dictionaries, it explained that a “hardship” means “something hard to bear” and this is “more severe than a mere burden.” It further explained that by adding the word “undue” to hardship, the law requires there to be an adversity that rises to an “excessive” or “unjustifiable level” when considering a religious accommodation.
Therefore, looking to the ordinary definition of the phrase “undue hardship,” the Supreme Court found that an employer must prove that granting the reasonable accommodation would result in substantial increased costs or substantial expenditures in the overall context of the company’s business. As it explained, “What is most important is that ‘undue hardship’ in Title VII means what it says, and courts should resolve whether a hardship would be substantial in the context of an employer’s business in the commonsense manner that it would use in applying any such test.”
The Supreme Court also addressed the extent an employer could consider the effects on coworkers and payment of overtime to show an undue hardship.
As it explained, the impacts on coworkers are only germane if those impacts effect the conduct of that particular business. But it cautioned that “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.”
It further noted that companies must do more than “conclude that forcing other employees to work overtime would constitute an undue hardship” and consider other options available to accommodate, such as voluntary shift swapping.
Practical considerations for employers
The Groff decision will modify how employers analyze requests for religious accommodations. Following this ruling, employers should take the following actions:
- Review and evaluate their religious accommodation policies and practices to ensure that they are in compliance with the new standard.
- Train all supervisors, managers, human resources professionals, and others who are responsible for reviewing, considering, or determining requests for religious accommodations in the workplace on this heightened test.
- Examine all relevant facts of each situation when evaluating whether to grant or deny a religious accommodation request, including the particular accommodation at issue and the practical impact of that accommodation in light of the nature, size, and operating costs of that particular business. As this new test is a fact and context specific analysis, all relevant factors in the case should be considered.
As companies continue to monitor developments in this area, employers should carefully analyze employee requests for religious accommodations and consider obtaining legal advice before denying an accommodation under this heightened undue hardship standard.
Jennifer Parent, a director at McLane Middleton, is a member of the firm’s Litigation Department and Employment Law Practice Group. She can be reached at 603-628-1360 or firstname.lastname@example.org.