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In wake of court decision, review religious accommodation policies

The recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Groff v. DeJoy significantly heightens the standard for determining whether a religious accommodation causes “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” Employers should take note of the change and modify policies accordingly.

Religious accommodations and undue hardship

The obligation to provide religious accommodation comes from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Under Title VII, employers must reasonably accommodate an employee’s “religious observance and practice” unless the employer shows that such accommodation would cause “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” The court’s decision in Groff rejects the long-recognized standard for determining what qualifies as an “undue hardship” and clarifies a heightened standard.

The old standard: de minimis cost

Under the previous standard – the one familiar to most employers – employers did not have to provide a religious accommodation if the accommodation imposed “more than a de minimis cost” on the employer. Note that this was a significantly lower bar than the standard under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires showing “significant difficulty or expense” to establish undue hardship.

The new standard: substantial increased costs

In Groff, the U.S. Supreme Court held that showing more than a de minimis cost is no longer sufficient to qualify as undue hardship under Title VII. Instead, an employer must establish that the burden of granting the religious accommodation would result in “substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.”

The Groff case involved a postal worker, Gerald Groff, who sued the United States Postal Service (USPS) for failing to provide him a religious accommodation. Groff, an evangelical Christian, requested an accommodation that would exempt him from working on Sundays in observance of the Sabbath. Although the USPS arranged schedules so that Groff wouldn’t have to work on Sundays, including having other carriers cover his Sunday shifts, there were times when these efforts failed due to a shortage of available carriers. Groff eventually resigned after receiving discipline for his refusal to work on Sundays.

Groff sued his employer for failure to reasonably accommodate his religious belief and practices, arguing USPS could have accommodated his request for exemption from work on Sundays without imposing undue hardship on the conduct of USPS’ business. Without deciding whether Groff should have been accommodated in this case, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the de minimis cost standard and clarified that the Title VII undue hardship standard requires an employer that denies a religious accommodation to show that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its business.

The court explained that determining whether an undue hardship exists under the standard requires taking into account “all relevant factors in the case at hand, including the particular accommodation at issue and their practical impact in light of the nature, size, and operating cost of an employer.”

The court gave a few indications of what may or may not constitute undue hardship under the substantial increased cost standard. For example, the court stated that a coworker’s dislike of a certain religious expression is not enough for undue hardship, nor are impacts on coworkers unless there are corresponding effects on the “conduct of the business.” The court also stated that if an employer faces a situation similar to one presented in Groff, it is not enough for the employer to deny the accommodation because it would require other workers to work overtime. Rather, the employer would have to evaluate other options, such as voluntary shift swapping. In other words, the employer cannot simply analyze whether one accommodation is reasonable; the employer must try to find a way to accommodate the employee.

Note again that the “substantial increased cost” standard is not the same as the ADA standard of “significant difficulty or expense.” The ADA standard is still a higher bar for employers to reach than the substantial increased cost standard announced by the court in Groff.

Takeaways and next steps for employers

The court’s decision dramatically changes the way religious accommodation requests should be evaluated by an employer when determining whether the accommodation would cause undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business. In light of the court’s ruling, employers should review employee handbooks and any internal policies regarding religious accommodations and update them as needed to align with the heightened substantial increased cost standard.

Additionally, employers should review whether accommodating an employee’s religious observance or practice imposes an undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business under the substantial increased costs standard articulated by the court. Employers should also be on the lookout for more guidance forthcoming on the heightened undue hardship standard for religious accommodations under Title VII, and reach out to counsel with any questions or concerns.

Natalie Pattison is an attorney with Barran Liebman LLP. She counsels and represents employers on a wide range of employment and labor matters.

Hannah LaChance is a law clerk with Barran Liebman LLP. She supports attorneys with content development for employment trainings, policy drafts, and legal research.