Supreme Court Raises Standard for Employers to Deny Religious Accommodation

July 10, 2023

On June 29, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court abrogated the de minimis standard that many lower courts have applied for decades to determine when Title VII permits employers to refuse an employee’s request for religious accommodation. In its unanimous opinion in Groff v. DeJoy, the Court “clarified” that employers may refuse such a request only when it would cause “substantial increased costs” to the conduct of its business. The Court’s decision marks a significant change for employers who relied on the de minimis test but now must engage in a more fact-intensive assessment of costs of potential accommodations and the impact on their businesses.

Statutory Background

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers to accommodate an employee’s or applicant’s religious practice or observance unless the accommodation would cause an “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” In a 1977 decision, Transworld Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, the Supreme Court held that an employer was not required to accommodate an employee’s observation of the Sabbath. In explaining its decision, the Court stated that requiring the company to “bear more than a de minimis cost” in order to give the employee Sundays off would pose an “undue hardship.”

Many lower courts adopted Hardison’s de minimis language as the governing standard, and the EEOC incorporated the test into its regulations even while making some efforts to soften it. For decades, employers relied on the low bar for establishing an undue hardship for religious accommodation requests.

The Case

Gerald Groff is an evangelical Christian who asked his employer, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), to excuse him from mail delivery duties on Sundays so he could observe the Sabbath in accordance with his religious beliefs. For a period of time, USPS attempted to accommodate Groff’s request, including by assigning other mail carriers to cover his shifts. But at some point, the USPS determined that it could no longer exempt him from Sunday work and later disciplined him for missed Sunday shifts. Eventually, Groff resigned.

Groff sued, asserting that the USPS could have accommodated his schedule without undue hardship to its business. Relying on the de minimis language from Hardison, the district court granted summary judgment for USPS. The Third Circuit, applying the same standard, affirmed.

The Supreme Court’s Decision

In its unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court held that de minimis costs are insufficient to establish undue hardship. The Court agreed with Groff and the USPS that the lower courts’ elevation of the de minimis line from Hardison to the governing Title VII standard was a mistake. The Court found it “doubtful” that the de minimis line was meant to take on that “large role.”

Instead, the Court explained that, in keeping with the ordinary meaning of the actual statutory text (“undue hardship”), employers must show that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its business. In applying the appropriate standard, the Court explained that lower courts must account for all relevant factors, including the accommodation requested and others available, as well as their practical impact considering the employer’s nature, size and operating cost.

Despite the clarification, however, the Court signaled that the EEOC’s guidance may still be reliable for employers seeking to comply with Title VII. The Court declined Groff’s invitation to apply the undue hardship test applicable to the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires an employer to demonstrate “significant difficulty and expense” to deny a disability accommodation. The Court opined that “a good deal of the EEOC’s guidance in this area is sensible and will, in all likelihood, be unaffected.” And the Court noted that “little, if any, change” may be required to the agency’s guidance regarding accommodations that do not impose undue hardship on employers, including “temporary costs, voluntary shift swapping, occasional shift swapping, or administrative costs.”

Implication for Employers

Going forward, employers should be able to continue relying on most existing EEOC guidance regarding what constitutes an undue hardship for religious accommodations under Title VII. But employers should keep abreast of guidance changes that result from this decision. For scenarios not covered by the EEOC’s guidance, employers should assume, as the Supreme Court observed, that a “big difference” exists between “substantial increased costs” to their businesses and the ordinary meaning of de minimis costs.

Although the Supreme Court declined to provide many concrete rules on how to apply the new fact-intensive standard, it did provide two specific rules that employers must heed. First, employers may not limit their undue hardship analysis to the employee’s preferred accommodation; they must consider other options, too. Second, in evaluating the impact of a religious accommodation to the conduct of an employer’s business, a co-worker’s dislike for a religious practice or animosity toward religion cannot factor into the analysis.

Employers should review their policies, procedures and training materials in light of the new standard with this specific guidance in mind.

For additional information regarding the impact of this decision or assisting with implementation of new policies in response to it, contact the authors of this article or another member of the McGuireWoods labor and employment team.