Supreme Court strengthens religious freedom protections for employees

July 1, 2023

The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled unanimously to redefine the employer’s burden of proof when denying an employee’s request for a reasonable accommodation due to religion.

The case, Groff v. DeJoy, involved U.S. Postal Service employee Gerald Groff, who was denied an accommodation to not work Sundays. The employer claimed it was an undue hardship to grant the accommodation in part due to the strain on other co-workers.

The employer relied on the existing standard from a decades-old Supreme Court opinion. According to the interpretation from that opinion, employers, in contending undue hardship, were required to show only that the requested religious accommodation created “more than de minimis cost” to the employers . The employer prevailed in the lower court and on appeal after it terminated the employee using this standard when the employee refused to work Sundays because doing so violated his religious beliefs.

On appeal in the Supreme Court, the unanimous court ruled in favor of Groff, holding that the employer must show more than de minimis, or minor, cost.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which applies to employers with 15 or more employees) prohibits an employer from discriminating against an individual because of that person’s religion. Religion is defined as “all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief, unless an employer demonstrates that he is unable to reasonably accommodate to an employee’s or prospective employee’s religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.”

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued regulations to the law that obligated employers to make reasonable accommodations to the religious needs of employees unless doing so would create undue hardship for the business.

In finding for Groff, the Supreme Court ruled that an employer must show “that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.” The determination will be based on “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.”

In other words, it’s a case-by-case basis that makes clarity on whether accommodations are necessary quite challenging for employers. As guidance, the Supreme Court suggested that “’undue hardship’” in the context of Title VII “means what it says, and courts should resolve whether a hardship would be substantial in the context of an employer’s business in the commonsense manner that it would use in applying any such test.”

On the issue of the impact to co-workers, the court ruled, “Impacts on co-workers are relevant only to the extent those impacts go on to affect the conduct of the business. A court must analyze whether that further logical step is shown. Further, a hardship that is attributable to employee animosity to a particular religion, to religion in general, or to the very notion of accommodating religious practice, cannot be considered ‘undue.’ Bias or hostility to a religious practice or accommodation cannot supply a defense.”

The court further ruled, “Title VII requires that an employer ‘reasonably accommodate’ an employee’s practice of religion, not merely that it assess the reasonableness of a particular possible accommodation or accommodations. 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 would also be necessary.”

Cases involving religious accommodations are becoming more frequent in recent years, to include conflicts with gender identity/orientation and religious beliefs, religious conflicts with the vaccine mandate and accommodations regarding uniforms and employer dress codes.

Employers cannot simply deny an accommodation because it is inconvenient or because they agree with one party (i.e., gender identity) versus another (i.e., religious beliefs around sexual orientation). Conflict around rights and beliefs must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, using the interactive process to resolve conflicts.

Immediately upon receiving a request for religious accommodation, employers must engage in the interactive process and find all reasonable solutions to make sure that the accommodation is effective.

As a point of reference, any accommodation that negatively impacts safety will likely be an undue hardship even under the new standard, but employers must still conduct the evaluation and make a case-by-case determination.