Standard for Religious Accommodations Made Easier for Employees

The U.S. Supreme Court recently clarified employer responsibilities following an accommodation request under Title VII, a federal law that prohibits religious discrimination in employment. Groff v DeJoy, Case No. 22-174 (2023). The clarification makes it more difficult for an employer to lawfully deny such a request.

Gerald Groff is an Evangelical Christian whose religion requires devoting Sundays to worship and rest, not work. Groff began working for the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) as a mail carrier in 2012. In 2013, USPS began delivering parcels on Sundays.

Groff refused to work on Sundays, and he received progressive discipline for Sunday absences until he resigned. He then sued USPS, arguing that USPS violated Title VII because it could have accommodated his religious beliefs without undue hardship.

Religious discrimination under Title VII includes an employer’s failure to accommodate an employee’s religious practice unless the accommodation would result in an “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” The lower courts dismissed Groff’s lawsuit based on the 1977 Trans World Airlines U.S. Supreme Court decision that defined undue hardship under Title VII as more than a “de minimis cost.” The lower court in Groff reasoned that “de minimis” (i.e., trivial) was a low threshold to meet, and that coworker increased workloads, disrupted workflow, and diminished employee morale resulting from Groff’s absences on Sundays were sufficient to establish undue hardship.

Rejecting the rationale from its prior decision, the U.S. Supreme Court noted that the term “de minimis” cannot be read in isolation. The Court observed that the plain meaning of “undue hardship” is a “hardship” that is “something hard to bear” and “undue” means the hardship must rise to an “excessive” or “unjustifiable” level.

Accordingly, the Court concluded that an undue hardship under Title VII is a substantial burden to the employer’s operations overturning the previous “de minimis” standard. The Court noted 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.” The Court added that, even if an employee’s requested accommodation is an undue burden, the employer has an obligation to consider other options that would accommodate the employee’s religious practices.

Although the Court declined to equate Title VII’s undue burden standard with the undue burden standard applicable to accommodation requests by employees with disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), school officials should consider engaging in an ADA-like interactive process when an employee requests a religious accommodation. That is, a school official and the employee should participate in an informal discussion to determine available religious accommodations that would not impose a substantial burden on school operations. School officials should document responses to religious accommodation requests. Failure to do so may result in a costly lawsuit, especially since it is unclear how courts will apply this new legal standard.