The Supreme Court issued a decision on June 28, 2023 clarifying the standard to be used by employes when workers seek a religious accommodation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, (covering employers with at least 15 employees), which may make it easier for employees to get such an accommodation. In the case of Groff v. DeJoy, a Pennsylvania postal worker, Gerald E. Groff, was forced to quit his job after he was disciplined for refusing to work on Sundays for religious reasons. Groff sued and his lawyers argued that a previous test often used in Title VII religious accommodation cases has, in practice, resulted in rulings for employers virtually every time that an accommodation would impose any burden on the employer. USPS argued that permitting Groff Sundays off created morale and scheduling problems and “resentment towards management.”
The unanimous Supreme Court reiterated previous rulings that said an employer may deny a religious accommodation if the burden of granting it would result in substantial increased costs in the conduct of its business. But the Court held that employers now have a higher standard to satisfy when determining whether an employee’s religious accommodation request would cause an undue burden on their business. Employers applying the test must take into account all relevant factors, including the particular accommodations at issue and the practical impact in light of the nature, size and operating cost of the employer, the Supreme Court said in an opinion by Justice Samuel Alito.
Until now, many courts “latched on” to a test for undue hardship that was discussed in the 1977 Supreme Court decision Trans World Airlines Inc. v. Hardison, wherein the Supreme Court said an employer suffers an “undue hardship” if the accommodation would impose “more than a de minimis cost.” Groff and the U.S. solicitor argued that the de minimis reading of Hardison was wrong. The Supreme Court also agreed, stating, “We hold that showing ‘more than a de minimis cost,’ as that phrase is used in common parlance, does not suffice to establish ‘undue hardship’ under Title VII.” The Groff decision clarified the phrase and said that unless the employer demonstrates that it is unable to reasonably accommodate that person’s religious observance or practice “without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business” the employer must provide the accommodation.
Employers should be on the lookout for a possible increase in employee requests for religious accommodations and should consider a number of steps to ensure compliance with the newly articulated standards. First, train your managers to be attuned to religious accommodation requests and train your HR staff to adjust their policies in responding to these requests. Specifically, employers may see increased requests for scheduling changes, time off, prayer breaks, job reassignments, modifications to dress codes and grooming policies, and designations of private locations in the workplace for religious observances. Employers should identify any recent religious accommodations they have granted – or rejected – and determine whether they need to adjust any decisions previously made given the new standard now in place.
Have a proactive plan for addressing any workplace resentment and disruption that could arise from granting religious accommodations to some employees – while being careful to protect those employees receiving accommodations from retaliation. This includes fostering a culture of respect and inclusivity to minimize conflicts and provide support for those of all religious faiths in the organization.
Employers should adjust any policies, practices, and written materials in place that lay out the employer’s approach to religious accommodation requests to adapt to the clarified standard. Some best practices include:
And of course, consult legal counsel at Schwartz Rollins LLC when appropriate to understand the type of evidence of significant cost or difficulty you’ll need to observe in your particular organization in order to deny a religious accommodation request under the new federal standard. Factors that would most likely be taken under consideration include:
If you have questions or need assistance with non-solicitation issues, please contact one of our attorneys at Schwartz Rollins, or our legal assistant, Vicki Perry at 404.844.4130.