Religious Accommodations Under Title VII

On June 29, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision in Groff v. DeJoy600 U.S. ___ (2023), clarifying the standard for employers with respect to religious accommodations in the workplace. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of religion and requires employers to accommodate religious practices of employees, subject to the defense of “undue hardship.” 42 USC §2000e(j). The issue in Groff turned on what constitutes “undue hardship” in the context of a religious accommodation.

The plaintiff in the case, Gerald Groff, is an Evangelical Christian who objected to working on Sundays. After Groff began to receive discipline for refusing to work on Sundays, he resigned and sued under Title VII. The courts below had granted the employer summary judgment, finding that exempting Groff from Sunday work imposed undue hardship on his co-workers, disrupted the workplace and workflow and lowered employee morale.

Prior to Groff, and based on a long history of court decisions, an employer could establish undue hardship under Title VII by showing the accommodation requested would create a greater than “de minimis” (very small or trifling) cost to the business. In Groff, the Supreme Court did not overrule existing precedent, but instead clarified it, holding that when faced with an employee’s request for religious accommodation, employers must show that the undue hardship created goes beyond “de minimis” and would instead result in “substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.” The Court observed that, by definition, undue hardship is not shown by just “some sort of additional costs”. Rather, in order for a hardship to be “undue”, it must rise to an “excessive” or “unjustifiable level.” The Court also noted that other relevant factors would be taken into account under the clarified standard, such as the size and operating costs of the employer.

Given the facts of Groff, the Supreme Court also considered whether an impact on co-workers could be considered undue hardship. The Court found that, when presented with an accommodation request such as in Groff, “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.” The Court likewise held that “bias or hostility to a religious practice” by co-workers and/or customers would not constitute undue hardship.

While the Supreme Court did not provide much detail on what will or will not constitute undue hardship going forward, the Groff ruling clearly requires employers to conduct a close evaluation of religious accommodation requests, including a thorough analysis of whether the burden and costs of providing the accommodation will truly result in undue hardship as shown by “substantial increased costs” for the business. The facts supporting such an analysis by employers should go beyond speculation and be well documented. The Groff decision has been hailed as a victory by those advocating for religious accommodations in the workplace. Employers will need to look at future religious accommodation requests with this clarified standard in mind.