U.S. Supreme Court Establishes New, Employee-Friendly Standard for Religious Accommodation Requests

Jul 11, 2023

The United States Supreme Court recently released its decision in Groff v. DeJoy, which adjusted the standard by which employers must assess employee requests for religious accommodation. In a unanimous opinion, the Court held that to lawfully refuse to provide a religious accommodation based on the undue hardship it would cause, employers must show that the requested accommodation, if granted, would result in “substantial increased costs” to the employer’s business.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, among other things, makes it unlawful to discriminate against employees on the basis of their religion. In doing so, Title VII also provides that employers must make reasonable accommodations to the religious needs of employees unless doing so would impose an “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” However, neither Title VII nor the EEOC’s regulations elaborate on what exactly the phrase “undue hardship” means. In a case from nearly fifty years ago, the Supreme Court interpreted the phrase “undue hardship” to broadly encompass anything that imposes more than a “de minimis” (minimal) cost on the employer.

In Groff, however, the Court took a different approach, holding that the burden imposed by a religious accommodation request must be “substantial” in order to constitute an undue hardship. Justice Alito, writing for the majority, relied on the commonly understood meaning of the word “hardship,” which is generally used to refer to something that is “more severe than a mere burden.” In keeping with this plain meaning of the word “hardship,” the Court concluded that “[A]n employer must show that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.” Furthermore, such substantial costs must, to a reasonable extent, be unavoidable in order for the employer to lawfully deny the request. For example, if an employee asked to be exempted from working on Sundays because of their religious beliefs and the employer denied the request solely because of the financial burden of having to pay the employee’s coworkers overtime, the employer would further need to show that these overtime costs were “substantial” and that they could not have been avoided by alternative means, e.g., by setting up a voluntary shift-swapping program.

In light of this new, more employee-friendly standard for religious accommodation requests, we encourage employers to reevaluate the standards by which they assess such requests. As you do, should you have any questions, we encourage you to reach out to any K|W|W attorney. Here at K|W|W, your workforce is our priority.

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