For nearly 50 years, lower courts across the country have held that Title VII does not require an employer to accommodate an employee’s religious observance or practice if the accommodation would require the employer to bear more than a “de minimis” cost. Last week in Groff v. DeJoy, Postmaster General, No. 22-174, 2023 WL 4239256 (2023), however, the Supreme Court unanimously held that Title VII requires an employer to accommodate an employee’s religious practice or observance unless doing so would result in “substantial” increased costs in relation to the conduct of the particular business.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, provides that employers must “reasonably accommodate . . . an employee’s or prospective employee’s religious observance or practice” unless the employer is “unable” to do so “without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(j). Based on what the Groff concurrence called “loose language” in a Supreme Court decision from 1977, lower courts have widely held for decades that any religious accommodation that requires an employer to bear more than a “de minimis” cost creates an “undue hardship” within the meaning of the statute.
The Supreme Court held that the lower courts have gotten it wrong. In Groff, a religious United States Postal Service worker resigned after being disciplined for refusing to work on Sundays. The district court granted summary judgment to the USPS, which the Third Circuit affirmed, after concluding that the employee’s request not to work on Sundays resulted in more than “de minimis” costs and therefore constituted an “undue hardship” that need not be accommodated. Upon review, the Supreme Court rejected the “de minimis” standard and clarified 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” in order for the accommodation to be considered an “undue hardship” within the meaning of Title VII. 2023 WL 4239256, at *11 (emphasis added).
The Supreme Court further explained that an accommodation’s impacts on other employees can be relevant to the undue hardship inquiry, but only when coworker impacts affect the conduct of the employer’s business. For example, difficulties attributable to another employee’s animosity to religion or to the notion of accommodating a religious practice cannot be considered, but overtime the employer must pay to other employees in order to accommodate a religious employee’s shift request could be relevant.
Finally, the Court explained that an employer may not deny an employee’s request for a religious accommodation merely because the employee’s particular suggested accommodation would create an undue hardship. Instead, the employer has an obligation to consider whether other options could accommodate the employee’s practice of religion without causing an undue hardship.
The Supreme Court’s clarification of the “undue hardship” standard for religious accommodation requests takes effect immediately. Stites & Harbison employment attorneys can advise you regarding your obligations under Title VII, assist with training managers and human resource professionals, and help you defend against Title VII actions.