Supreme Court Raises Bar Employers Must Jump Over to Justify a Lack of Accommodation to an Employee’s Religious Practice

On June 29, 2023, the United States Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision in Groff v. DeJoy, No. 22-174 (2023), which “clarified” and effectively changed the religious accommodation standard under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, U.S.C. §2000e(j). Under Title VII, employers must reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious practice unless the employer is unable to do so without suffering “undue hardship” on the conduct of its business. For the previous 46 years, lower courts, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and employers have relied on the Court’s statement in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977) that any accommodation that requires an employer to bear more than a “de minimis cost” is an “undue hardship”. Under the Court’s new, heightened standard, an “undue hardship” is only shown when the burden of granting an accommodation would result in “substantial increased costs” in relation to the conduct of the business.

The Court in Groff explained that lower courts and the EEOC have been misinterpreting the holding of Hardison for nearly half a century. The issue in Hardison was whether Title VII required an employer to deprive senior employees of their contractually secured seniority rights in order to accommodate a junior employee’s religious observance of Sabbath. Although the opinion in Hardison indeed says that an undue hardship can be shown by any harm that is more than de minimis, it also says that an accommodation is not required when it entails “substantial” costs or expenditures. In the years following Hardison, the EEOC issued guidance utilizing the “de minimis” standard as law and lower courts applied the standard to a range of religious accommodations. Since this standard set a very low bar for employers, courts have used it to reject accommodations as simple as a dress code exemption and coverage for occasional absences. Groff also involved an employee who requested an accommodation to observe a Sabbath and the Court used the case as an opportunity to explain that the single “de minimis” sentence in Hardison was not intended to establish the rule. Instead, the Court interpreted Hardison to mean that an “undue hardship” is shown when a burden is substantial in the overall context of the employer’s business. This “clarification” of the law has effectively raised the bar employers must now clear in order to show that a requested accommodation imposes an undue hardship.

Despite this change in standard, the Court in Groff  opined that much of the EEOC’s guidance on religious accommodations is sensible and will be unchanged by the decision. The Court left the application of this standard to the particular facts of the case to the lower court on remand. Groff is an important decision because it sets the standard by which all religious accommodations will be judged moving forward. This is a very fact-specific test and employers are well-advised to seek advice in a given case where an employee seeks religious accommodation.

If you have any questions about the content of this update or about implications for your employees, please contact us. We are pleased to assist public and private employers with all accommodation issues.

This update is provided for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice.