On June 29, 2023, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court changed the standard for evaluating when employers must accommodate employees’ religious beliefs that conflict with the workplace. Until now, employers could deny a religious accommodation request if it would impose more than a “de minimis” cost on the business. Under the new standard, employers must show that accommodating an employee’s religious beliefs would impose “substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.” Groff v. DeJoy, No. 22-174, https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/22pdf/22-174_k536.pdf
The case was brought by Gerald Groff, a former postal worker who observes the Sunday Sabbath. When the United States Postal Service (USPS), began making deliveries on Sunday, Mr. Groff refused to work those days for religious reasons. The USPS tried to find other postal workers to switch shifts with Mr. Groff but could not always find Sunday coverage. When Mr. Groff refused to work on those days, the USPS disciplined Mr. Groff and he resigned.
Mr. Groff sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which requires employers to reasonably accommodate their employees’ religious belief unless an accommodation would cause “undue hardship” to the employer’s business. The district court found in favor of the USPS and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.
The key issue for the Supreme Court was the meaning of “undue hardship”. Previous Supreme Court cases had interpreted the phrase to mean only more than a “de minimis” burden to employer’s business. Mr. Groff’s attorneys argued that it means “significant difficulty or expense”. Rejecting both, the Supreme Court decided that it means “substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of [employer’s] particular business”. The Court sent the case back to the lower court to apply its new standard.
As before, courts must consider the facts of each case to determine whether undue hardship exists. The Supreme Court did provide some specific guidance, however, by noting that a religious accommodation that impacts coworkers or that requires other employees to work overtime is not necessarily an undue hardship unless “those impacts go on to affect the conduct of the business.”
In light of this decision, employers should (i) ensure that their supervisors and managers are trained in how to respond to religious accommodation requests; and (ii) evaluate each request on a case-by-case basis to determine the potential increased costs and impact on their business.
If you have questions or concerns about discrimination or requests for reasonable accommodations, please contact Chaim Book at firstname.lastname@example.org, Sheryl Galler at SGaller@booklawllp.com, or Nadav Zamir at NZamir@booklawllp.com.