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U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Expands Protections for Employees Receiving Religious Accommodations

on Tuesday, 11 July 2023 in Labor & Employment Law Update: Sarah M. Huyck, Editor

On June 29, 2023, the United States Supreme Court strengthened religious freedom protections for employees. The case involved a former United States Postal Service (USPS) mail carrier, Gerald Groff, an evangelical Christian who requested accommodations to observe the Sabbath by not working on Sundays. For a time, USPS did not require Sunday work until it contracted with Amazon to deliver packages on Sundays. Groff refused to work on Sunday, which required USPS to make other arrangements, including redistributing Groff’s deliveries to other staff and regional carriers. Through this time, USPS utilized its progressive discipline procedures against Groff for his failure to work on Sundays until Groff eventually quit his job and brought a lawsuit alleging that USPS’s failure to accommodate his request violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating against workers based on their religion, among other protected classes. To deny a religious accommodation request, Title VII requires an employer to show that it would face an “undue burden” by complying with the request. Courts formerly interpreted “undue burden” to include even a de minimis (minimal) financial burden on the employer under precedent set in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977).  The Groff case did not overturn any previous decisions; the Court asserted that it sought to further clarify what satisfies the standard of an “undue burden.”

In a 9-0 decision, the Court held in Groff that a showing of a de minimis financial burden is insufficient to meet the “undue burden” standard of Title VII. Instead, employers will have to meet a much higher threshold to show “that the burden of granting accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.” (emphasis added).

To maintain compliance with the new directive, employers should carefully consider employees’ religious accommodation requests. If an employer finds that it is unable to accommodate a request, it must show that complying with the request causes substantial expense or hardship. Employers should note, however, the substantial burden must be shown in the overall context of an employer’s business. The Court has not yet agreed on whether things that affect individuals within the business—such as the burden on other employees covering the shifts or duties of the employee seeking religious accommodation—constitutes a negative effect on the business at-large.  Instead, the Court suggests a case-by-case analysis based on “all relevant factors… at hand” like the particular accommodation requested and its practical impact based on “size and operating cost of [an] employer.” If an employer is only able show a de minimis financial burden, the employer will be at risk if an aggrieved employee takes action after having a religious accommodation denied. To be able to appropriately defend their denial of a religious accommodation, an employer should consider substantial steps to accommodate the employee before denying any request so that the employer may easily show a burden beyond a de minimis cost.

Sapphire M. Andersen
Courtney Camenzid, Summer Associate

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