Supreme Court sets new standard for employers to provide religious accommodations

On June 29, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision in Groff v. DeJoy, which relates to religious accommodations under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on, among other protected categories, religion. The law imposes an obligation on an employer to reasonably accommodate employees but permits the employer to deny such an accommodation when accommodating the employee may constitute an undue burden on the employer.

In Groff, the Court “clarif[ied] what Title VII requires” by reviewing what is necessary to satisfy undue hardship to the employer when showing why an employee did not receive an accommodation. To do this, the Court focused on the precedential case of Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, which courts around the country have relied on when interpreting undue hardship to mean anything that requires the employer “to bear more than a de minimis cost.” In other words, an employer could refuse a religious accommodation if it had to bear more than a de minimis cost. In Groff, the Court held that this “de minimis cost” standard should no longer be applied by courts. Instead, “Title VII requires an employer that denies a religious accommodation to show that the burden of granting the accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.” After defining this standard, the Court vacated the lower court’s ruling and remanded the case for the “context-specific application of that clarified standard” to be completed by a lower court.

In this case, Groff, a postal worker, requested Sundays off from work due to his religious beliefs. The United States Postal Service did not provide an accommodation to Groff and instead redistributed his work to other employees and issued Groff “progressive discipline.” Groff eventually resigned and subsequently sued the USPS under Title VII for failure to provide a reasonable accommodation. Both parties in the case agreed that the de minimis test from Hardison is not the correct interpretation of undue hardship in all accommodation scenarios. Each party offered a different interpretation, and the Court ultimately adopted its own as described above. The new test requires courts to “apply the test in a manner that takes into account all relevant factors in the case at hand, including the particular accommodation at issue and their practical impact in light of the nature, size and operating cost of [an] employer.”

This new standard applies to all employers including school districts and county offices of education when they consider religious accommodation requests from their employees. The previous de minimis test is arguably a lower standard that allows employers to provide fewer accommodations, so moving forward it will be harder for employers to prove they are not able to provide an accommodation. Said differently, employees will now have an easier time when trying to acquire a religious accommodation.

It is important to note that the Groff standard announced by the Court is similar to the standard employers were already subject to under California law. The Fair Employment and Housing Act specifically protects employees seeking to receive time off for religious holidays and defines “undue hardship” as “an action requiring significant difficulty or expense” when considered in light of several factors, including the overall size of the employer and the nature and cost of the accommodation needed.