Workplace Religious Accommodation Ruling Expected from Supreme Court Soon
By Meaghan E. Murphy - Skoler Abbott
May 10, 2023
In April, the United State Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Groff v. DeJoy, a case about religious accommodations in the workplace. Specifically, Groff centers around the issue of how great a burden an employer must bear in order to accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious belief, observances, or practices. The Court will issue its ruling within the next few months. While we do not yet know what the Court will decide, all signs point toward a more employee-friendly standard than currently exists under the law. In other words, the anticipated new rule will likely require employers to do more to accommodate the religious beliefs, observances, or practices of their employees moving forward. This could have a significant impact on employers.
As background, Title VII is the federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion. Under Title VII, “religion” includes all aspects of belief, observance and practice, and the law requires an employer to “reasonably accommodate” such observances and practices where it can do so “without undue hardship on the conduct of its business.” In a 1977 case, the Supreme Court ruled that the “undue hardship” standard is met whenever the accommodation would require more than a “de minimis” – that is, trivial or minimal – cost to the employer. That nearly 50-year old standard is being revisited now.
In Groff, Gerald Groff was hired to work as a postal carrier in 2012. At that time, postal carriers did not work on Sundays. In 2013, however, the United States Postal Service (USPS) signed a contract with Amazon to deliver the company’s packages, including on Sundays. Groff, an evangelical Christian, requested not to work Sundays. For a time, the USPS was able to accommodate his request in various ways, including by allowing Groff to transfer to another location that did not deliver on Sundays (at first) and seeking volunteers to cover Groff’s Sunday shifts. Ultimately, however, all employees – Groff included – were mandated to work Sundays on a rotating basis. When Groff refused to work on Sundays, he was disciplined. Eventually, he resigned and sued the postal service for failing to reasonably accommodate his religious practices in violation of Title VII.
Under the de minimis standard announced in 1977, the federal district court rejected Groff’s claims, and the Court of Appeals upheld that decision. Groff appealed his case to the Supreme Court. Groff has asked the Court to reject the de minimis standard, and instead adopt a higher standard of “substantial difficulty or expense” similar to the reasonable accommodation test used for the Americans with Disabilities Act and many state civil rights laws, including Massachusetts. Based on the oral arguments last month, it seems likely the Court will modify the current de minimis standard, but how exactly the standard is modified and what guidance is provided to help employers and employees understand a newly modified standard are unknown.
The Court’s decision in Groff is expected before the end of the Court’s current term in June. In the meantime, employers denying a religious accommodation as an undue hardship should ensure that they are able to identify and document the cost and impact on the business of granting the accommodation, bearing in mind that a higher standard may be coming down soon.
We will continue to monitor for updates in this area and promptly issue a blog post regarding the decision once it is released by the Supreme Court.