On June 29, 2023, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Groff v. DeJoy a case brought by an employee of the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) who was denied his request for religious accommodation. Groff is an evangelical Christian who observes a Sunday Sabbath. The USPS scheduled him for Sunday shifts despite his requests not to work on Sundays because of his religious observances.
Federal Law Prohibits Religious Discrimination in Employment
Under the 1972 amendments to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, religious discrimination includes failure to accommodate an employee’s religious observance or practice unless the employer can show that accommodation imposes an “undue hardship” on the conduct of the employer’s business.
Following a 1977 Supreme Court decision in Transworld Airlines, Inc. V. Hardison, many courts interpreted Hardison as alleviating an employer from its duty to accommodate if it could show that the employee’s request for religious accommodation required it to bear anything more than a “de minimis cost.” This low bar for showing undue hardship meant that many workers were denied accommodation because an employer was easily able to show more than a de minimis cost. An employer could argue the requested accommodation negatively impacted morale, required it to pay any amount of overtime to other workers, or had some other minimal impact on its business. So, while the federal law against religious discrimination was on the books, courts routinely found in favor of employers who had denied a requested accommodation.
The Groff Decision Raises the Bar for Employers to Show Undue Hardship
In Groff v. DeJoy, the Supreme Court ruled that employers can only deny an employee's request for religious accommodation if they can prove it would result in substantially increased costs for the business. A company must now show that the costs of a proposed accommodation are “undue hardship” as in “something hard to bear.” In other words, the Groff Court determined undue hardship means something that is excessive or unjustifiable or imposes substantial additional cost, taking into consideration all relevant factors in the case, including the nature, size, and operating costs of the employer.
Post Groff, it is not enough to show a negative impact on co-worker morale or the imposition of additional duties on co-workers. Any claimed undue hardship based on supposed negative effects on co-workers must be shown to have a negative effect on the conduct of the employer’s business.
Employers Are Expected to Consider Alternative Accommodations
Title VII’s mandate for “reasonable accommodation” does not mean if one proposed accommodation is not feasible or causes undue hardship, that any and all accommodation is unreasonable. The Groff Court also made clear that an employer has a duty to consider alternative accommodations. In Groff’s case, the USPS failed to consider alternatives like shift swapping that might have been a reasonable alternative without imposing an undue hardship. Because the USPS never considered any alternatives, simply denying Groff’s request by arguing that making other employees pick up his Sunday shifts was bad for morale, the case was sent back to the lower court for further review.
The Future for Religious Discrimination Claims
Post-Groff, an employer should engage with a worker who has requested religious accommodation to find a solution that fits the religious practices and observances of the employee without creating an undue hardship. The give and take of this process may mirror what companies and workers engage in when an employee requests reasonable accommodation for a disability. If an employer fails to work with an employee on their requested accommodation or fails or refuses to consider alternatives, an employee may want to consider taking legal action particularly if termination occurs.
The attorneys at Freking Myers & Reul are dedicated to helping workers protect their rights, including their right to be free from religious discrimination in the workplace. We will be closely following future developments in the area of religious accommodation to help our clients vindicate their rights.