Religious Accommodation Requests & the Latest Supreme Court Case Every Employer Should Know About

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In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court of the United States clarified in Groff v. DeJoy, Postmaster General that the undue hardship defense for religious accommodations requires more than a de minimis cost or effort analysis.

Gerald Groff, an Evangelical Christian, believed he should not work on Sunday because that day was reserved for worship and rest. In 2012, Groff began working for the United States Postal Service (USPS) as a mail carrier. At that time, there was generally no Sunday work as USPS did not deliver on Sundays. In 2013, USPS signed a contract with Amazon to make Sunday deliveries, and in 2016, the relevant labor union signed an agreement with USPS outlining how Sunday deliveries would be performed by mail carriers, including Groff. Because he did not want to work Sundays, Groff petitioned and received a transfer to a more rural area that was not making Sunday deliveries for Amazon. In 2017, however, this area began making Sunday deliveries. Groff refused to work Sundays because of his religious beliefs, and as a result, his coworkers, including the local postmaster, had to make the Sunday deliveries. Groff regularly received disciplinary warnings for this refusal. In January 2019, Groff resigned. He filed a Title VII claim a few months later for failure to grant him religious accommodations.

The Court noted that Title VII and EEOC guidance obligated employers to make reasonable accommodations to the religious needs of employees unless such an accommodation would create an undue hardship for the employer. For more than 45 years, the seminal case for religious accommodation undue hardship analysis had been Hardison v. Trans World Airlines. Courts had generally characterized that decision as establishing the standard that any effort or cost more than de minimis was sufficient to deem it an undue hardship and deny the religious accommodation request.

The Court, however, disagreed, clarifying that the Hardison decision asserted that “undue hardship” is shown when a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer's business. This meant that an employer must show that the burden of granting such a religious accommodation would result in a substantial increase in cost relative to its particular business, taking into account all relevant factors such as the nature, size, and operating cost of a given employer. In its analysis of the Groff case, the Court stated that undue hardship does not include temporary costs, additional overtime costs associated with employees covering extra shifts, voluntary shift swapping, occasional shift swapping, or administrative costs.

While this change makes the undue hardship analysis for religious accommodation closer to that of disability claims, the Court was careful to note the differences that exist and refused to identify ADA cases as precedential. Expect some of this analysis to play out in the EEOC and courts in the coming years.

The court also affirmed that “impact on coworkers” could be relevant to the undue hardship analysis, but only where are those impacts affect the “conduct of the business.” Bias towards a coworker’s religious practice and expression in the workplace or employee animosity to a particular religion, to religion in general, or to the very notion of accommodating religious practice cannot be considered in this analysis.

There are several steps employers should take moving forward. Any employer denying a religious accommodation due to undue hardship should be prepared to prove that such a hardship with substantially increased costs does exist under the new standard. Additionally, religious accommodation policies and procedures should be reviewed to ensure any de minimis language is removed and revised to be consistent with the new standard. Anyone that handles religious accommodation requests should be trained on the new standard. Employers may wish to revisit recent requests for religious accommodations that were denied. Lastly, pending religious accommodation lawsuits may be affected by this decision and change the litigation strategy moving forward.

As always, should you have questions or need assistance with compliance, please contact James Jansen at jjansen@airdowerwas.com.

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