On June 29, 2023, the United States Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion in Groff v. DeJoy, Postmaster General, increasing the employer’s burden to prove an undue hardship defense from the previous de minimis standard to a substantial hardship standard. Although the opinion is framed as a mere “clarification” of the Supreme Court’s 1977 decision in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, in practice, the law now requires employers to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs under Title VII unless such accommodation would create a substantial hardship to the employer’s business.
Gerald Groff is an evangelical Christian who objected to Sunday work based on his religion. As a rural mail carrier, over the years his position developed into one where USPS required Sundays and holidays, largely due to online retailers. Originally, the USPS was able to move Groff to other positions that did not require Sunday work. However, in 2017 Groff was once again required to work on Sundays. As Groff continuously refused to work his Sunday shifts, the USPS disciplined Groff and redistributed his job duties onto other staff members that were already working those shifts. In 2019, Groff resigned and sued the USPS for failing to accommodate his observance of Sunday as a day of rest, in violation of Title VII prohibition against religious discrimination in employment.
Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and corresponding federal regulations, an employer is required to make reasonable accommodations to the religious needs of an employee unless doing so would create an undue hardship on the employer’s business.
Historically, lower courts interpreted the Supreme Court’s decision in Hardison as allowing an employer to satisfy the undue hardship threshold where the employer would have to bear more than a de minimis cost to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs. In Groff, the Court effectively says that other courts have incorrectly “latched onto” a “fleeting” reference to the de minimis language in Hardison.
Groff has now replaced the de minimis standard in favor of a substantial hardship standard. The result is that it will become harder for employers to show that providing an employee with a religious accommodation was an undue hardship for the employer’s business as a whole.
Further, the Court hints that the employer should engage in an interactive-like process with the employee seeking a religious accommodation. The Court states that when an employee approaches their employer with a religious accommodation request, it is not sufficient for the employer to evaluate the hardship associated with that request only. The Court explicitly indicates that it is necessary to consider other options that would accommodate the individual’s religious beliefs. With the Court imposing a seemingly affirmative duty for an employer to engage in an interactive process with the employee, the Court resolves any ambiguity surrounding how involved an employer must be when considering accommodating a religious belief.
As a result of the Groff opinion, employers who are approached for a religious accommodation will need to do a detailed analysis of the employee’s request, their restriction, and the employer’s holistic ability to accommodate the restriction. Employers should no longer expect to be able to easily deny a religious accommodation request based on cost but rather should expect to be required to present serious costs in order to win on an undue hardship defense.