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In a rare unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has substantially altered the standard under which employers must evaluate employee requests for religious accommodations under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  In order to justify the denial of a religious accommodation due to “undue hardship,” as Title VII requires, an employer must now show that the burden of granting the accommodation “would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.” Employers must now re-examine their practices in responding to requests for religious accommodations, which were previously governed by an employer-friendly test allowing denial if the accommodation would result in “more than a de minimis” cost.

In Groff v. DeJoy, a USPS employee sought to avoid working on Sundays due to his religious beliefs.  USPS assigned other employees to cover the Sunday deliveries that would otherwise have been assigned to him, but it disciplined Groff for his refusal to work on Sundays until he finally resigned.  Groff then sued USPS under Title VII, alleging that it could have accommodated his request to take the Sabbath off without undue hardship. 

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of USPS, and the Third Circuit affirmed.  Both courts concluded that allowing Groff to skip out on Sunday work imposed on coworkers, disrupted workflow, and had a negative effect on employee morale, which required USPS “to bear more than a de minimis cost.”  The de minimis test has been used by employers since SCOTUS’s 1977 decision in Hardison v. Transworld Airlines. 

Noting that Groff’s case “present[ed] [the] first opportunity in nearly 50 years to explain the contours of Hardison,” SCOTUS reviewed the history of Title VII’s religious protection, as well as the rationale for the Court’s ruling in the decades-old case.  The Court explained that many lower courts improperly latched on to a single line in the Hardison opinion: that “[t]o require [the employer] to bear more than a de minimis cost in order to give [the employee] Saturdays off is an undue hardship.”  The Court said that, in doing so, lower courts ignored the language in Hardison that explained accommodations are not required where they involve “substantial” costs or expenditures. 

The Groff opinion emphasizes that undue hardship must be determined on a case-by-case basis, with courts considering factors such as the specific accommodations at issue and their impact given an employer’s size and operating costs.  Not all accommodations that have some impact on an employee’s coworkers will constitute an undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.  It is not about the impact on coworkers alone, but the impact on the business. 

The more stringent standard the Court adopted in Groff will likely result in a significant increase in religious accommodation requests and more difficulty in denying accommodations on grounds previously relied upon.  Liskow’s employment law team can assist you in navigating religious accommodation requests in the wake of the Court’s ruling.

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