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U.S. Supreme Court Redefines ‘Undue Hardship’ for Religious Accommodations

By October 5th, 2023No Comments

United States Supreme Court Building in Washington DC, USA.

This article originally appeared as a guest column in the Journal Record on July 13, 2023.

By: Phoebe M. Barber

Phoebe Mitchell portrait

Phoebe M. Barber

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers to reasonably accommodate employees whose sincerely held religious beliefs conflict with work requirements. Employers need not grant a religious accommodation if doing so would cause an “undue hardship.” Courts have relied upon U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS)’s interpretation of undue hardship set forth in TWA v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977) which stated that requiring an employer “to bear more than a de minimis cost in order to give [an employee] Saturdays off is an undue hardship.” Employers and the courts alike have relied upon this “de minimis” standard for four decades.

In Groff v. DeJoy, No. 22-174 (June 29, 2023), Gerald Groff, a former United States Postal Service (USPS) mail carrier, had a sincerely-held religious belief that Sundays should be devoted to worship and rest. When his USPS station began making Sunday deliveries, Groff moved to a rural USPS station that did not. However, Sunday deliveries began at that station as well, and Groff requested a religious accommodation to not work on Sundays. USPS redistributed Groff’s Sunday deliveries to other staff members. However, Groff was disciplined for failing to work on Sundays, and he eventually resigned. In his lawsuit, Groff claimed he was wrongfully denied his request for a religious accommodation under Title VII.

The District Court granted summary judgment for USPS, relying on TWA, and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that allowing Groff to not work on Sundays had “imposed on his coworkers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale.”

SCOTUS disagreed in its unanimous decision authored by Justice Samuel Alito holding “undue hardship” is shown not when the employer has to bear more than a de minimis cost, but rather, when the burden is “substantial in the overall context of the employer’s business.” This change significantly deviates from prior court decisions relying on TWA and U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidances. SCOTUS declined to determine which facts would meet this new burden of “undue hardship,” remanding the case to the Third Circuit, stating: “Courts must apply the test to take into account all relevant factors” including “the particular accommodations at issue and their practical impact in light of the nature, size, and operating cost of an employer.”

The standard espoused by SCOTUS is reminiscent of the reasonable accommodation/undue burden standard under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Whether the standard will be as stringent and whether the interactive process under the ADA will be applied to the religious reasonable accommodation process is unknown. Until further guidance, Employers should consider requests for religious reasonable accommodations, discuss the request with the employee, and provide a reasonable accommodation after assessing the impact to the company.

About the author:

Phoebe M. Barber  is an attorney focused on labor and employment matters for both individuals and public companies in a wide range of civil litigation matters in both state and federal court.

CONTACT: | 405.606.4711

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