Supreme Court Revises Religious Accommodation Test

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In a unanimous decision last week, the U.S. Supreme Court redefined “undue hardship” for employers responding to religious accommodation requests.


Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers to accommodate the religious practices of their employees unless doing so would impose an “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” Since 1977, based on the Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison decision, employers had operated under the belief that they could deny a religious accommodation if doing so would require it to “bear more than a de minimus cost.”

Last week, the Supreme Court revisited the Hardison decision. A unanimous Court held that Hardison had been wrongly decided or at least wrongly interpreted. Now, when denying an employee’s request for accommodation, an employer must show that granting the accommodation would result in “substantial increased cost in relation to the conduct of the particular business.”

In Groff v. DeJoy, Gerald Groff, an Evangelical Christian believed, for religious reasons, that Sundays should be devoted to worship and rest and not secular work. As a U.S. Postal Worker, he was required to work Sundays to make deliveries for Amazon. He refused to do so and, after receiving progressive discipline, he eventually resigned. The district and the appeals courts found that exempting Groff from Sunday work “imposed on his coworkers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale.” That was sufficient to establish “undue hardship.”

The Court specifically declined to adopt the “undue burden” test of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) but stressed that undue hardship means “substantial additional costs” or “substantial expenditures.” The employer must show that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased cost in relation to the conduct of its particular business. In applying that test, the courts must take into account all relevant factors, including the particular accommodations at issue and their practical impact in light of the nature, size, and operating cost of the employer.

Faced with a request that an employee not work on the Sabbath, an employer must do more than conclude that forcing other employees to work overtime would constitute an “undue hardship;” consideration of other options would also be necessary. The employer must look at the entire business, and determine whether, within that context, the accommodation would result in substantial increased cost in relation to the conduct of the particular business. According to the Court, while Title VII requires an assessment of the possible accommodation’s effect on the conduct of the employer’s business, impacts on coworkers are relevant only to the extent those impacts go on to affect the conduct o the business. Moreover, the hardship attributable to employee animosity to a particular religion, to religion in general, or to the very notion of accommodating religious practices, cannot be considered “undue.” Bias or hostility to a religious practice or accommodation cannot supply a defense. Moreover, the effect on coworkers (i.e. voluntary shift swaps), increased administrative costs, including overtime, is not an undue hardship unless it was an undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.

If you have any questions regarding religious accommodation or any other employment issues, please contact the Firm’s Labor and Employment lawyers.

This article has been prepared for general information purposes and (1) does not create or constitute an attorney-client relationship, (2) is not intended as a solicitation, (3) is not intended to convey or constitute legal advice, and (4) is not a substitute for obtaining legal advice from a qualified attorney. Always seek professional counsel prior to taking action.

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