A Texas correctional officer will have a new day in court after a federal appeals court revived his religious discrimination suit.
The ruling in Hebrew v. TDCJ follows the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent overhaul of the undue hardship standard for religious accommodation requests.
In June, the Supreme Court raised the bar for Title VII religious accommodations. In Groff v. DeJoy, which involved a Christian postal worker who refused to work on Sundays, the Court ruled that employers who refuse a religious accommodation request must show that making such an accommodation would cause significant burden or expense. Under the previous de minimis standard, employers only had to show that the accommodation would impose more than a minimal cost.
In September, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) had not met the higher standard. While the TDCJ claimed that the plaintiff’s long hair and beard posed safety issues, the court found that there was not sufficient evidence to show that accommodations would cause the TDCJ undue hardship.
Told to cut beard and hair
In 2019, Elimelech Shmi Hebrew was hired by the TDCJ to work as a correctional officer. When Hebrew reported for his first day of training, he was told he would have to cut his beard and hair.
Hebrew, who is a follower of the Hebrew Nation, indicated that he had taken a religious vow to keep his hair and beard long. He refused to cut his hair and submitted a formal request for religious accommodation that same day.
He was later notified that his request had been denied, and he was eventually terminated. The TDCJ denied his request because his beard could inhibit the safe use of a gas mask, because his hair would make it easier for an offender to attack him, and because his hair would be harder to search for contraband.
Hebrew filed a pro se lawsuit in federal court, alleging religious discrimination and failure to accommodate his religious practices under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
A district court entered summary judgment for the defendant, finding that they had a legitimate safety reason for terminating Hebrew. The district court also found that the TDCJ would have to bear more than de minimis cost because coworkers would have to perform extra work to accommodate him.
In a unanimous decision, the federal appeals court reversed. The court cited the Groff decision, rejecting every argument the TDCJ proffered regarding both safety and extra work for coworkers.
Specifically, the court ruled that, per Groff, an accommodation that creates additional work for coworkers is insufficient to show undue hardship. As to the safety issues, female officers were allowed to have long hair, officers with skin conditions were allowed beards, and the court found that a “few extra minutes” to search Hebrew’s hair “would not pose a ‘substantial’ or ‘undue hardship’ ‘in the overall context’ of TDCJ’s” budget.
Takeaways for employers
In light of the Groff v. DeJoy decision and lower court rulings that will now emerge, employers should be aware that the U.S. Supreme Court has raised the bar for what constitutes an undue hardship.
Employers will need to provide more evidence to show that accommodation would cause substantial difficulty or expense.
Even if the requested accommodation would truly cause undue hardship, the employer is still required to engage in an interactive process with the employee and consider other alternatives. Employers may find an increase in religious accommodation requests in the coming months and should evaluate such requests with caution.