Supreme Court Rules Employers Now Subject to Higher Standard to Prove “Undue Burden” When Accommodating Religious Employees

The Supreme Court of the United States recently issued an opinion that affects how employers respond to an employee’s request for a religious accommodation. The threshold is now much higher for employers to reach when considering whether a requested accommodation would cause an undue burden on the business.

A look back at lower courts’ decisions.
Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, covered employers with 15 or more employees have an obligation to provide a reasonable accommodation to employees who have sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observances that conflict with their work requirements. This means that the employer should engage in a good faith interactive dialogue with the employee in order to determine whether the requested accommodation can be granted. Examples of accommodations include flexible scheduling, time off, voluntary shift substitutions or swaps, job reassignments, and modifications to workplace policies, practices, and procedures. Many lower courts based their decisions on whether the accommodation would cause an employer to bear more than a de minimis cost. This resulted in more accommodations being denied because the employer merely had to show that the cost was “very small or trifling.”

The facts of the case before the Supreme Court.
In Groff v. DeJoy, the plaintiff, Mr. Groff was an Evangelical Christian who was a rural mail carrier for USPS. Mr. Groff observed the Sabbath every Sunday. He requested Sundays off to devote to rest and worship. Mr. Groff was disciplined for failing to work on Sundays and he subsequently resigned his employment. He then filed suit under Title VII alleging that USPS could have accommodated his request without placing an undue burden on his employer.

The Supreme Court overruled the de minimis standard.
The Supreme Court held that showing “more than a de minimis cost does not suffice to establish “undue hardship” under Title VII. The Court defined “hardship” at a minimum is, “something hard to bear,” and is more severe than a mere burden. The Court emphasized that the burden to the employer in granting the accommodation must substantially increase costs when considering the employer’s business as a whole. “Courts must apply the test in a manner that takes into account all relevant factors in the case at hand, including the particular accommodations at issue and their practical impact in light of the nature, size, and operating cost of an employer.”

The immediate impact on employers.
Although the Supreme Court clarified the new heightened context-specific standard, it left it to the lower courts to apply the standard to the specific facts of each case. Therefore, it is crucial that employers review each request for religious accommodation carefully and thoughtfully. This requires meaningful consideration whether the employer can reasonably accommodate the employee’s religious practice. If the employer believes that the request would be an undue burden, the employer should document its reasoning in a clear and concise manner that provides ample context for the denial. Employers would be prudent to consult with employment counsel to ensure compliance with the new federal standard.

If you have any questions about how this Supreme Court decision impacts your policies regarding accomodations for religious employees, please feel free to contact Tanya Bryant or another member of the firm’s Labor & Employment Practice Group.

Print version.


Practice Area:

Labor & Employment