Upending decades of precedent, the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that employers considering employees’ requests for religious accommodation must grant these requests unless doing so would result in “substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.” Employees seeking religious accommodations from their employers typically request uniform changes for modesty, prayer breaks at certain times of the day, or schedule changes to avoid working on certain days of worship. Here’s what this change in federal law means for employers.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires all employers with at least 15 employees to provide reasonable accommodations to employees whose sincerely held religious beliefs conflict with their job duties, unless the employee’s request creates an “undue hardship” for the company.
Drawing on a single line from a 1977 Supreme Court decision, district courts and courts of appeal have long held that an employee’s accommodation request may be an “undue hardship” if it presented more than a minimal burden (or “de minimis”) on the business. See Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977). Until recently, this made it relatively easy for employers to point to almost any business reason to deny an employee’s accommodation request.
Enter Gerald Groff — a mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). Groff is an Evangelical Christian who sought a religious accommodation to avoid working on Sundays so he could devote that time to worship and rest. At first, mail carriers in Groff’s region did not deliver mail on Sundays. Eventually, this changed. Groff initially sought and received a transfer to another location that had no Sunday delivery. When this location began Sunday deliveries, Groff and his co-workers were required to take rotating shifts to deliver goods on Sundays. Because Groff declined to work Sundays due to his religious beliefs, USPS made other arrangements, including redistributing Groff’s shifts to coworkers, the postmaster, and other regions. During this time, Groff received progressive discipline for failing to work Sundays. Groff resigned and sued the postal service under Title VII.
The district court and Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for USPS. Applying the “de minimis” rule extrapolated from Hardison, the courts concluded that Groff’s accommodation of avoiding Sunday work “imposed on his co-workers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale.” Because impositions were an “undue hardship” on USPS, the agency had no obligation to provide Groff with his requested accommodation.
The Supreme Court disagreed. “Undue hardship,” it concluded, is more than “de minimis.” Instead, to prove “undue hardship,” the Court held 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.”
Despite issuing this “clarifying decision,” the Supreme Court declined to define what constitutes “substantial increased cost,” leaving that to lower courts. It did, however, provide a general framework for employers.
Moving forward, all employers should:
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