The landmark decision in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977), by the U.S. Supreme Court, established the precedent that imposing more than a minimal (de minimis) cost on an employer to accommodate an employee’s religious observance under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 constitutes an “undue hardship.” In this case, an employee sought time off to observe Sabbath day. The court reasoned that such accommodation would lead to favoritism based on religion, therefore concluding that Title VII does not mandate employers to discriminate against some employees to accommodate others’ religious observances.
For the subsequent 45 years, courts and employers have interpreted the de minimis phrase from the Hardison decision broadly, meaning that employers can deny religious accommodation requests under Title VII if they result in more than a de minimis burden. However, in Groff v. DeJoy, Postmaster General, on June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court unanimously declared that this standard has been consistently misapplied to Title VII religious accommodation requests.
The Groff v. DeJoy Decision:
The Supreme Court, in the Groff case, got its first chance in almost half a century to clarify the Hardison decision and the de minimis standard. The case involved an Evangelical Christian postman named Groff, who asked for an exemption from working on Sundays to deliver Amazon packages. Following his refusal to work on Sundays, his duties were reassigned, and he was disciplined, leading him to quit and sue USPS.
The Third Circuit upheld the District Court’s summary judgment in favor of USPS, arguing that Groff’s requested accommodation created more than a de minimis cost for USPS. They highlighted the burden on Groff’s colleagues, disruption of the workplace and workflow, and dampened employee morale. The Supreme Court did not concur with this view.
Justice Alito, who authored the unanimous opinion, pointed out the mutual agreement between both parties that the de minimis interpretation of Hardison was incorrect. The Supreme Court explained that just proving more than a de minimis cost is not sufficient to establish undue hardship under Title VII. The real measure for undue hardship is when the burden is considerably significant within the context of an employer’s business. This standard, although similar to the “significant difficulty or expense” analysis for disability accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), was rejected by the Supreme Court for religious accommodations under Title VII.
In the Groff case, the Supreme Court clarified it was not overruling Hardison, but merely elucidating the undue hardship standard under Title VII. Consequently, the case was remanded for further proceedings without any conclusions regarding USPS’s potential victory.
The “Correct” Undue Hardship Standard:
The Supreme Court outlined that under the “correct” undue hardship standard, courts and employers must consider all relevant factors while evaluating religious accommodation requests. Crucially, an employer’s undue hardship analysis cannot factor in other employees’ aversion or hostility towards a particular religion or religious practice. The Supreme Court also underscored that forcing other employees to work overtime alone cannot justify an undue hardship.
Employers under Title VII must contemplate a variety of potential religious accommodations, such as voluntary shift swapping. Factors that may lead to an undue hardship finding can include the cost of incentive pay and administrative costs of procuring substitute employees. According to the Supreme Court, while undue hardship doesn’t imply a “significant difficulty or expense,” employers must ultimately evaluate whether a burden significantly impacts their business context.
Implications for Employers:
Before the Groff decision, employers and lower courts often leaned on the de minimis standard when considering religious accommodation requests, such as requests for religious exemptions to mandatory COVID-19 or influenza vaccination policies. While several of these religious accommodation cases and discrimination charges are still pending nationwide, the Groff ruling will undoubtedly influence future agency actions.
As a result, employers are advised to revisit and update their policies related to religious accommodation requests. They should also seize this opportunity to educate managers and leaders on the “correct” undue hardship standard under Title VII. When addressing religious accommodation requests, similar to disability accommodation requests under the ADA, employers should implement an individualized analysis, taking all relevant factors into account.
The Groff v. DeJoy decision has significant implications for employers, both in how they interpret religious accommodation requests and their broader diversity and inclusion policies. The decision could fundamentally shift the landscape of religious accommodations in the workplace, especially in businesses where such accommodations could influence scheduling, workflow, and cost.
- Redefining “Undue Hardship”: Under the “correct” undue hardship standard set forth in Groff v. DeJoy, employers are tasked with determining whether a burden is substantial within the context of their overall business operations. This calls for a more nuanced, case-by-case approach to evaluating religious accommodation requests, which may be significantly more complex than the previous de minimis standard.
- Increased Scrutiny: Given the broader interpretation of what constitutes undue hardship, employers may face increased scrutiny from both the courts and equal employment opportunity entities. Legal and HR departments will need to be more cautious in analyzing accommodation requests to avoid any potential legal pitfalls.
- Policy Revisions and Training: Employers will likely need to revise their existing policies related to religious accommodation requests to align with this new standard. This not only involves updating the written policies but also includes training supervisors and management to apply this new standard correctly and consistently. They need to understand how to balance religious accommodation requests with the impact on business operations and other employees.
- Increased Requests for Accommodation: The decision may also embolden employees to make religious accommodation requests, knowing that the bar for an employer to deny such a request has been raised. Employers must prepare for a potential uptick in such requests and the administrative work that comes with them.
- Balancing Act: Employers will need to strike a delicate balance between respecting employees’ religious beliefs and maintaining effective business operations. This may be particularly challenging in industries where weekend or shift work is common, as the decision may encourage more requests for religious accommodations relating to work schedules.
- Financial Impact: The new standard could also impose additional financial costs on employers, as they might need to incur costs such as paying incentive pay or finding replacement employees to accommodate religious beliefs. Businesses may need to budget for these potential additional costs moving forward.
- Precedent for Future Cases: Given the Supreme Court’s decision, lower courts are likely to follow this ruling in future religious accommodation cases. This will impact how employers manage such requests, with potential repercussions for broader workplace policies and procedures.
- Reputation and Company Culture: The decision reinforces the importance of diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Employers that respond positively by implementing respectful and fair religious accommodation policies can enhance their reputation as inclusive employers, which could in turn aid in recruitment and retention of diverse talent.
In conclusion, the Groff v. DeJoy decision will necessitate employers to revisit their religious accommodation policies and perhaps even overhaul their approaches to such requests. While the new interpretation of undue hardship imposes a higher burden on employers, it also presents an opportunity for them to foster a more inclusive and respectful workplace culture.