Supreme Court Redefines “Undue Hardship” Test for Religious Accommodations

Although the Supreme Court issued several significant decisions this week, there's one that will substantially impact employers and employees as it relates to religious accommodations. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, employers are required to provide "reasonable accommodations" to workers whose religious beliefs conflict with their job, as long as it doesn't impose an "undue hardship" on the company.  Previously, an employer could demonstrate “undue hardship” if the proposed accommodation would result in more than a "de minimis" or minimal burden on the employer. It will now be harder for employers to demonstrate an undue hardship.

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court concluded that an employer seeking to establish undue hardship must demonstrate that granting a religious accommodation would lead to "substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business." This ruling sides with former USPS employee Gerald Groff, an Evangelical Christian who was scheduled to work on Sundays, despite his religious objection.  Groff alleged in his lawsuit that USPS violated Title VII when it disciplined him for missing work on about two dozen Sundays, a day when the USPS delivered parcels for Amazon. All of his absences were instances in which USPS couldn't find someone to cover the Sunday shifts.

While the Court seemed to downplay the impact of this decision, it will unquestionably have substantial ramifications for employers moving forward. In a case like Groff’s, it is no longer enough for an employer to conclude that forcing other employees to work overtime would constitute an undue hardship.

Employers are now left with many questions when facing future religious accommodation requests. For example: How would this new standard impact vaccine mandate exemptions due to religious beliefs if an exemption would not result in a substantial increased cost? If an employee asserts a religious objection to participating in anti-discrimination and anti-harassment training because it conflicts with their religious beliefs, are they not required to attend training under this new standard? Ultimately, the Court stated that moving forward, lower courts “must apply the test to take into account all relevant factors in the case at hand, including the particular accommodations at issue and their practical impact in light of the nature, size, and operating cost of an employer.”

We expect to see a lot of litigation in this area, and it’s safe to say employers may be faced with more requests for religious accommodations in the future. It’s therefore critical that any managers and HR personnel handling these requests receive updated training to ensure such requests are properly considered.


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