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U.S. Supreme Court Establishes Higher Standard When Denying Religious Accommodations Due To Undue Hardship
Gerald Groff is an Evangelical Christian who believes for religious reasons that Sunday should be devoted to worship and rest. In 2012, Groff took a mail delivery job with the United States Postal Service (USPS). Groff’s position generally did not involve Sunday work, but that changed after USPS began facilitating Sunday deliveries for Amazon. To avoid the requirement to work Sundays on a rotating basis, Groff transferred to a rural USPS station that did not make Sunday deliveries. Soon, Amazon deliveries began at that station as well, so USPS redistributed Groff’s Sunday deliveries to other USPS staff. During peak season, Sunday deliveries that would have otherwise been performed by Groff were carried out by the rest of the USPS station’s staff. During other months, Groff’s Sunday assignments were assigned to the regional hub.
Throughout this time, Groff continued to receive progressive discipline for failing to work on Sundays. Eventually, Groff resigned.
Groff sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, asserting that USPS could have accommodated his Sunday practice without undue hardship on USPS’s business. Under Title VII, it is unlawful for covered employers to discriminate against any individual because of that individual’s religion. The EEOC has held that employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations to the religious needs of employees whenever that would not work an undue hardship on the employer’s business.
The trial court determined that USPS had a valid undue hardship defense and granted summary judgment to USPS. The Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision, holding that requiring an employer to bear more than a de minimis cost to provide a religious accommodation is an undue hardship under the Court of Appeals’ current precedent. The de minimis cost standard was a low standard to meet, and the Court of Appeals determined that exempting Groff from Sunday work imposed a cost on his coworkers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale. This was enough to establish undue hardship. The case was then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court granted certiorari.
The Supreme Court held that the de minimis cost standard did not suffice to establish undue hardship under Title VII. Rather, undue hardship is shown when a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business. This is a fact-specific inquiry. The Supreme Court noted that undue hardship is more severe than a mere burden and more than imposing some sort of additional costs on the employer, rather, it must rise to the level of excessive or unjustifiable. The Supreme Court also held that all relevant factors must be considered when evaluating reasonable accommodations, including the practical impact of the accommodations in light of the nature, size, and operating cost of the employer.
The Supreme Court remanded the case to the lower courts to apply the context-specific application of the standard.
Groff v. DeJoy (2023) __ S.Ct.__ [2023 WL 4239256].
Note: Title VII generally applies to schools, though there are some exceptions for religious schools. Schools should make note of this decision and consult LCW when responding to religious accommodation requests, as schools will need to meet a higher burden if denying any requests.