U.S. Supreme Court Modifies Test for Religious Accommodations in the Workplace

On June 29, 2023, the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in Groff v. Dejoy, in which the Court announced a heightened standard for employers attempting to demonstrate that an employee’s request for religious accommodation under Title VII would impose an undue hardship on its business.  All HR Departments and employer operators should take note of this decision because it is likely to require them to grant more religious accommodation requests than they had granted in the past.

In Groff, the Supreme Court held that an employer must demonstrate that an employee’s request for religious accommodation would impose a substantial difficulty or cost to its business operations before rejecting such request. This holding marks a departure from over 45 years of precedent, which held that any request for religious accommodation that created more than a de minimis cost – a low bar —would constitute an undue hardship on an employer.

In Groff, a former United States postal worker requested not to work Sundays because of his religious practices. The Postal Service denied the employee’s request, citing the requirements of the business and difficulties in scheduling, including needing to schedule other employees to cover the employee’s shifts, as an undue hardship. The District Court and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the employer, holding that the Supreme Court’s decision in Trans World Airlines allowed the employer to deny a religious accommodation where it could demonstrate that doing so would impose more than a de minimis cost, and therefore an undue hardship, to its business.

The Supreme Court disagreed with the Third Circuit’s reliance on this prior interpretation of Trans World Airlines, and instead explained that courts needed to determine whether an employer would be required to incur substantial difficulty or costs to implement an employee’s request for religious accommodation. Though employers have long been aware of their obligations to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs under Title VII, they have understood their obligations to be something less than that of an undue burden under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Supreme Court’s decision changes the standards by which employers will evaluate religious accommodation requests in a way that more employees are likely to qualify for religious accommodations when they previously would have been denied.