Supreme Court course corrects on workplace religious accommodation test


In a much anticipated decision on religious accommodations in the workplace, the U.S. Supreme Court in Groff v. DeJoy has upended what has been the long-standing test to determine employers’ obligations to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs and practices under federal law. 

Under Title VII, the federal civil rights law, an employer is required to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs and practices by making modifications to workplace rules and policies where the employer can do so “without undue hardship on the conduct of its business.” The question of what constitutes an “undue hardship” seemed well-settled in the context of religious accommodations by the Supreme Court’s nearly 50 years old decision in Trans World Airlines v. Hardison. In that case, the Supreme Court’s holding seemed to establish that an “undue hardship” occurs when an accommodation requires an employer to bear more than a de minimis – or minor cost. Of course, this is a significantly different standard than employers have become accustomed to in accommodating disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 

Now, in a unanimous decision in Groff v. DeJoy, the Supreme Court has clarified that the “de minimis cost” test for religious accommodations has a more limited application. Rather than rely on the de minimis standard, employers must establish that an accommodation will impose substantial costs in order to reject a religious accommodation request. This decision will have a significant impact on how employers evaluate religious accommodations requests and will require many to change their policies and practices.

The Groff v. DeJoy Case Background

Gerald Groff, a Sunday Sabbath observant rural mail carrier for the United States Postal Service (USPS), started working for USPS when Sunday deliveries were not required. The USPS, however, soon signed a contract with Amazon, which included Sunday deliveries. Groff asked to not work Sundays to accommodate his religious beliefs. For a time, the USPS accommodated his request in various ways, including allowing him to transfer to another location and seeking volunteers to cover his Sunday shifts. Eventually, however, all USPS employees at the rural location – Groff included – were required to work Sundays on a rotating basis. When Groff refused to work on Sundays, he was disciplined. Eventually, Groff resigned and sued the USPS for failing to reasonably accommodate his religious practices in violation of Title VII.

The federal district court that initially heard the case applied the de minimis standard to find that accommodating Groff would be an undue hardship to the USPS. The district court reasoned that although the USPS has a large workforce, it had few mail carriers in the rural location where Groff worked. Allowing Groff to take every Sunday off would create an undue hardship in part because of the burden that it would place on other employees and the impact on morale. The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision – and Groff then appealed to the Supreme Court.

In his appeal, Groff asked the Supreme Court to reject the de minimis standard for workplace religious accommodations. In support of his position, Groff argued that “undue hardship” suggests that “an employer must incur significant costs or difficulty before it is excused from offering an accommodation.” Yet, the long-standing de minimis standard requires minimal expense or burden to establish undue hardship – essentially negating employers’ religious accommodation obligation. Groff argued that the Supreme Court should adopt the higher standard of “substantial difficulty or expense,” which is similar to the ADA reasonable accommodation test.

The Supreme Court’s Decision in Groff v. DeJoy

In its unanimous opinion issued on June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court essentially “course corrected” on the religious accommodation test.  

The Court held that Title VII requires an employer that denies a religious accommodation to show that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.

The Court indicated that the Groff case presented the first opportunity in the nearly 50 years since Hardison to explain the contours of the religious accommodations standard discussed in that case. The Court noted that in Hardison it considered whether abrogating a union seniority system was an undue hardship on the employer. The Hardison case did not, however, focus on determining when increased costs outside of that specific context amount to “undue hardship” under Title VII. In fact, writing for the unanimous Court, Justice Samuel Alito points out that in Hardison, the Court actually described a governing standard that considered whether costs or expenditures were “substantial.”

The Supreme Court notes that lower courts seemed to “latch” on to the wrong standard by relying on the “de minimis” costs test and glossing over the Supreme Court’s reference to assessing “substantial” cost to evaluate whether a religious accommodation is reasonable.  Accordingly, in Groff the Supreme Court held that the “more than a de minimis cost” test is not sufficient to establish an “undue hardship” under Title VII.

In re-setting the standard, the Supreme Court held that it is enough to say that what an employer must show is that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in “substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.” That test must be applied 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.

We think it is enough to say 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.

Notably, the Court specifically declined to adopt either the ADA’s “significant difficultly or expense” standard for accommodations or the EEOC heightened standard for religious accommodations. The Court did note that while a good deal of the EEOC’s guidance on religious accommodations is sensible, the Court did not find it prudent to completely ratify the EEOC’s prior interpretations.

Significantly, the Court held that “What is most important is that ‘undue hardship’ in 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.”

In additional clarifies notes, the Court addressed several recurring issues in religious accommodation cases.

  • First, Title VII requires an assessment of a possible accommodation’s effect on “the conduct of the employer’s business.” Impacts on coworkers are relevant only to the extent those impacts go on to affect the conduct of the business. 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.”
  • Second, 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. Meaning that employers must consider various workplace options before determining that reasonable accommodations cannot be provided.

Employer Takeaways

The Groff v. DeJoy decision will have a significant impact on how employers evaluate and provide religious accommodations. Employers applying the de minimis test have often denied religious accommodation requests based on almost any impact to operations – including requiring extra efforts on the part of other employees. With the religious accommodation standard now clarified in Groff, that practice is no longer acceptable.

Employers should now anticipate an increase in religious accommodation requests. These could include requests for scheduling changes, time off, prayer breaks, job reassignments, modifying dress codes or grooming policies, or designating a location in the workplace for religious observance.

Evaluating these requests going forward, employers will need to evaluate whether the requested accommodation will result in a substantial cost. Further, employers will need to show that they have evaluated a variety of options, similar to the ADA analysis.

As the Supreme Court suggests, the EEOC’s guidance on religious accommodations will be a resource to employers evaluating religious accommodation requests. Ultimately, however, the Court’s “course correction” on the religious accommodations standard will play out in the lower courts as the parameters of the Supreme Court’s guidance are refined.

This means that employers will need to do some course correcting of their own by taking time to understand the new standard, establishing new processes for evaluating religious accommodation requests, and determining whether the impact of requested accommodations has a substantial cost on the business’s operation.  

The McDonald Hopkins Labor and Employment Law Team is available to assist employers in addressing these issues.

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