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Holy Accommodations

Holy Accommodations – The Supreme Court Expands Employers’ Duty to Religious Employees


By Jesse L. Roth

At Maddin Hauser, I have the good fortune of working for an employer who understands, respects, and accommodates my religious needs. Because I am Sabbath observant, I leave work early on Fridays in the winter, and I can’t work on Saturdays. Oh, and I have an insatiable appetite for kosher pizza, which the firm brings in for events. 

Some other religious folks in the workplace are not as fortunate, whether because certain employers are unable to accommodate their needs, or simply don’t want to, or something in between. However, under the U.S. Supreme Court’s new holding in Groff v. DeJoy, Title VII requires an employer who denies a religious accommodation to show that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial hardship.   

The doctrine is rooted in a 1977 Supreme Court decision, Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, which dealt with the issue of whether an employer is required to make accommodations for employees’ religious practices under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, specifically regarding scheduling conflicts arising from religious observances.  In the Hardison case, a TWA employee who was a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church requested Saturdays off work to observe the Sabbath.  TWA denied the request, arguing that accommodating the employee’s religious practices would create an undue hardship on the company’s operations.  The Supreme Court ruled in favor of TWA, holding that the employer was not required to make an accommodation if doing so would impose more than a de minimis burden on the employer.  This was the law for nearly 50 years.  But in a unanimous decision last month, the Supreme Court in Groff v. DeJoy did away with the “more than a de minimis burden” test in favor of a test that asks whether the employer’s burden of granting an accommodation would result in “substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.” 

The plaintiff in Groff v. DeJoy is an Evangelical Christian who does not work on Sundays.  He took a mail delivery job with the U.S. Postal Service that initially did not involve Sunday work.  That changed after USPS began facilitating Sunday deliveries for Amazon.  USPS redistributed Groff’s Sunday deliveries to other USPS staff and disciplined Groff for refusing to pitch in.  Groff sued under Title VII, arguing that USPS should have accommodated his religious observances.  The district court granted summary judgment to USPS and the Third Circuit affirmed based on the standard from Hardison, because Groff’s needs had “imposed on his coworkers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale.”

The Supreme Court reversed, clarifying what an employer needs to prove in order to defend a denial of a religious accommodation under Title VII.  Essentially, the Court held that showing “more than a de minimis burden” does not suffice to establish “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business,” like EEOC regulations interpreting Title VII require.  Rather, undue hardship requires a showing of substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.  The Court further noted that impacts on coworkers are relevant to the extent they impact the conduct of the business.  In addition, Title VII’s requirement that an employer reasonably accommodate an employee’s practice of religion means the employer must do more than assess the reasonableness of a particular possible accommodation.  In other words, faced with an accommodation request like Groff’s, an employer must do more than conclude that forcing other employees to work overtime would constitute an undue hardship.  Consideration of other options may also be necessary.  Ultimately, having clarified the Title VII undue hardship standard, the Court remanded the case to the trial court to apply the clarified standard to Groff’s case. 

The takeaway for employers is that there is now an expanded duty to make reasonable accommodations for religious employees and potential employees in order to avoid liability under Title VII.  As for me, I am left to ponder how many slices of kosher pizza would be a reasonable accommodation at the next firm event!