U.S. Supreme Court Drastically Changes Standard Applied in Religious Accommodations Cases
On June 29, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court (“Court”) decided a case concerning religious accommodations in the employment context. With the decision, the Court departed from the standard used for assessing religious accommodation requests that employers, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), and courts have relied on for almost 50 years. Specifically, the Court changed the test for what constitutes an “undue hardship” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), placing a more substantial burden on employers. Employers who receive requests for religious accommodations will want to review the situation with attorneys since this ruling is such a drastic change from how the business community has operated in the past.
The Previous Religious Accommodation Standard
Under Title VII, it is unlawful for employers to discriminate against any individual with respect to their employment due to religion. The regulations under Title VII require that employers reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious observance or practice unless the employer is unable to do so “without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.”
In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a religious accommodation case involving a work schedule change request. In that case, the Court held that requiring an employer “to bear more than a de minimis cost in order to give [an employee] Saturdays off is an undue hardship.” Since then, employers, the EEOC, and courts throughout the country have applied the “more than a de minimis cost” analysis to religious accommodation request cases. This standard was generally easy for employers to satisfy.
New Standard under Groff v. DeJoy
In the recent case, Groff v. DeJoy, plaintiff was a mail carrier for the United States Postal Service (“USPS”) and an Evangelical Christian. He originally did not work on Sundays (the Christian Sabbath), but he was eventually assigned to work that day when the USPS started making Amazon deliveries on Sundays. When he requested not to work on Sundays as a religious accommodation, he was transferred to a more rural location that did not make Amazon deliveries. When that location began making Amazon deliveries, he was scheduled to work on Sundays again. The plaintiff refused to work the Sundays he was scheduled and was disciplined for the missed days, leading to his resignation.
Plaintiff originally brought his case in the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. He argued that the district court should apply the more stringent test for “undue hardship” that is used under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). The district court declined to apply that standard and granted summary judgment to the USPS. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed.
On appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Court changed the standard for assessing undue hardship under Title VII, but declined to adopt the ADA standard. The new standard articulated by the Court is that “‘undue hardship’ is shown when a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business.” While the Court did not supply much specificity, it stated that courts must apply the test in a manner that takes into account all relevant factors in the case at hand, including the particular accommodations at issue and their practical impact in light of the nature, size and operating cost of an employer. The Court declined to state facts that would meet this new test and remanded the case back to the district court.
Going forward, employers will need to show that it denied a requested religious accommodation because it would be a substantial burden in the overall context of their businesses. This is a more onerous showing than the previous de minimis test. Employers will want to review requests for religious accommodations with attorneys on a case-by-case basis until the caselaw develops more in this area.
If you have any questions about the implications of Groff v. DeJoy on your business or need counseling on religious accommodations requests, please feel free to contact one of Honigman’s Labor and Employment Attorneys here.