Supreme Court Rules That “Substantial Burden” Is Required to Establish Undue Hardship for Religious Discrimination Claims Under Title VII

Stoel Rives - World of Employment

Stoel Rives - World of Employment

In a unanimous opinion issued last Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified the standard that employers must use to measure the burden of an employee’s religious accommodation request.  The case is Groff v. DeJoy, No. 22-174.

Title VII requires employers to accommodate employees whose sincerely held religious beliefs conflict with an employment requirement or policy, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.  For decades, courts have relied on the case Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977), to find that anything more than a “de minimis” burden constituted an undue hardship under Title VII.

The de minimis standard no longer applies after the Groff decision, which involved a former U.S. Postal Service worker who objected to working on Sundays because of his Christian faith.  Instead, the Court ruled that an undue hardship is shown “when a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business,” which is a “fact-specific inquiry.”  Notably, the Court declined to overrule the Hardison case and found that it had simply been misread over the years.

The plaintiff in Groff had urged the Court to adopt an even higher standard for evaluating undue hardship in religious discrimination cases, and apply the same analysis that is used in cases arising under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), which defines undue hardship as an action requiring “significant difficulty or expense.”  The Court declined to apply the ADA standard, commenting: “We think it is enough to say that an 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.” 

Notably, the Court did not define what constitutes “substantial increased costs.”  However, it explained that in assuming the less restrictive de minimis standard test applied, the lower court “may have. . . dismiss[ed] a number of possible accommodations [for the plaintiff],” including offering incentive pay to other employees to work on Sundays, or coordinating with other nearby post office branches who had more employees.  Questions remain as to how courts will interpret the “substantial burden” requirement going forward.  At this stage, however, all employers should be aware of the change and ensure that religious accommodation requests are not only considered, but granted unless there is a substantial barrier to doing so. 

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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