Type: Law Bulletins
Date: 06/29/2023

Accommodating Employee Religious Beliefs: Supreme Court Raises the Bar

In a unanimous decision issued earlier today in the case of Groff v. DeJoy, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified when an employer must accommodate the religious beliefs of an employee that conflict with an established work rule, upending the standard followed throughout the country on this subject for nearly the past 50 years.

Accommodating Employees

As most employers are aware, under the Americans with Disabilities Act businesses are required to accommodate the physical or mental disabilities of otherwise qualified employees and applicants unless doing so causes an “undue hardship,” which generally means a “significant difficulty or expense incurred” by the company.

For religious beliefs, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 similarly imposes a duty on employers to accommodate an employee’s religious observance or practice “without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” What constitutes an “undue hardship” has historically been interpreted differently under these two statutes.

In the 1977 case of Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, the Supreme Court stated that to require an employer to give an employee Saturdays off — in contradiction of an established union seniority system — constituted “more than a de minimis cost . . . [and] is an undue hardship.” Despite other language in Hardison referencing an employer not having to sustain “substantial” costs in accommodating employees, in the nearly five decades that followed lower courts, as well as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), have interpreted the religious accommodation requirement under Title VII as requiring accommodations that do not produce more than a de minimis — i.e., small or minuscule — cost. Indeed, this very issue was front and center last year in the context of religious objections to employer-required COVID-19 vaccination.

What is Required Now, and What About Other Employees?

Under Groff, the court clarified that an employer must accommodate an employee’s religious practice as long as the proposed accommodation does not create “substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of [the company’s] particular business.”

The specific factual issue in Groff was whether exempting an employee from Sunday work — requiring his co-workers to pick up the slack — constituted an undue hardship. The Groff court noted that “an accommodation’s effect on co-workers may have ramifications for the conduct of the employer’s business, but a court cannot stop its analysis without examining whether that further logical step is shown in a particular case.” Clarifying this point, the court noted that companies must explore other available options, and that “[f]aced with an accommodation request like Groff’s, it would not be enough for an employer to conclude that forcing other employees to work overtime would constitute an undue hardship. Consideration of other options, such as voluntary shift swapping, would also be necessary.”

Further, the court stated that “a hardship that is attributable to employee animosity to a particular religion, to religion in general, or to the very notion of accommodating religious practice cannot be considered ‘undue,’” meaning that even a co-worker’s objection to having to change their schedule to accommodate another employee may not pass muster.

One important caveat, however, is that Groff appears to reaffirm the Hardison court’s prior statement that having to involuntarily violate a bona-fide and bargained-for seniority system is not a required step an employer must take.

Next Steps

So what is an employer to do now? While refusing to go so far as expressly affirming the EEOC’s guidance on religious accommodations, the court did note that today’s decision “may prompt little, if any, change in the agency’s guidance explaining why no undue hardship is imposed by temporary costs, voluntary shift swapping, occasional shift swapping, or administrative costs.” Moreover, the court specifically rejected a request to instruct lower courts to apply case law under the ADA to Title VII religious accommodation requests moving forward.

Now, when faced with a request for a religious accommodation, employers must dig a little deeper than before and evaluate whether the impact of the accommodation imposes an undue hardship on the “conduct of the business.”

And as it relates to the impact of the accommodation on co-workers, the decision makes it clear that a prudent employer must also explore whether any options are available that the requesting employee’s co-workers may voluntarily agree to, rather than dismissing an accommodation request out of hand as imposing a hardship.

For more information, please contact a member of Taft’s Labor and Employment Litigation practice group. 

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