SCOTUS to Revisit Reasonable Religious Accommodation Requirements for Employers
Employers are required under federal law to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious observances or practices unless doing so would cause undue hardship to the employer. Accommodations can include adjusting work schedules or allowing leave for religious observances, providing a private location in the workplace for religious observance, or modifying dress or grooming practices to allow for an employee’s religious practices.
History of Reasonable Religious Accommodations
The reasonable religious accommodation test was set out by the Supreme Court in 1977 in Trans World Airline, Inc. v. Hardison. An employee seeking to prove religious discrimination must show their sincerely held religious belief conflicts with a requirement of their job, that they informed their employer of the conflict, and they were disciplined by the employer for not complying with the conflicting requirement. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, religion extends not only to traditional organized religions, but also to “religious beliefs that are new, uncommon, not part of a formal church or sect, only subscribed to by a small number of people, or that seem illogical or unreasonable to others.” A religious belief for purposes of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 includes any belief that is religious in a person’s “own scheme of things,” is “sincere and meaningful,” and “occupies a place in the life of its possessor parallel to that filled by . . . God.”
Once the religious belief is identified and the employer notified, then the burden shifts to the employer to show they either reasonably attempted to accommodate the religious belief or that the accommodation would impose undue hardship on the employer. An undue hardship occurs when an accommodation request requires an employer to bear more than a de minimis, or minimal, cost.
Religious rights advocacy groups have advocated to overturn the decision in Hardison for decades, arguing that the undue hardship standard is too broad and limits worker’s rights unfairly. These groups advocate for a standard more similarly aligned with the standard for reasonable accommodation and undue hardship under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which defines an undue hardship as an action that requires significant difficulty or expense for the employer and sets forth factors to consider such as the nature and cost of the accommodation compared to the size, resources, nature, and structure of the business. However, the Supreme Court has declined to hear a case on the reasonable religious accommodation test until now.
Supreme Court to Hear Groff v. DeJoy in 2023
The Supreme Court will revisit the question of reasonable religious accommodations this year with their review of Groff v. DeJoy and will decide 1) whether an employer can meet the more-than-de-minimis-cost test by showing a requested accommodation causes undue hardship to the employer by burdening an employee’s coworkers instead of the business itself and 2) whether the de minimis test should be replaced with a higher standard.
In this case, Plaintiff Gerald Groff, a former postal worker, sued the USPS for failing to accommodate his observance of Sunday Sabbath. The USPS contracted with Amazon in 2013 to deliver packages, including Sunday deliveries. Rural postal workers were asked whether they wanted to work on Sundays and holidays, and the USPS created a list of volunteers and non-volunteers based on the workers’ responses. Carriers were scheduled for Sunday and holiday delivery on a rotating basis starting with the volunteer list and, if needed, the non-volunteer list.
Based on a memorandum of understanding between the USPS and the Rural Letters Carriers Association, which required all rural letter carriers to deliver on Sundays and holidays during peak season, Groff was informed he would have to deliver packages on Sundays as backup to the career employees. Management initially allowed Groff to trade other workers’ shifts in exchange for his Sunday and holiday shifts but discontinued the practice in 2018. When Groff did not report to work on his scheduled Sundays, he received a written warning and two suspensions. In 2019, Groff resigned and sued the USPS for failure to accommodate his religious practice in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The Third Circuit majority found in favor of the USPS because exempting Groff from Sunday Amazon deliveries imposed undue hardship on the USPS that surpassed a de minimis burden by placing too heavy of a burden on coworkers to cover more weekend deliveries. Groff argued that the de minimis test “effectively nullifies the statute’s promise of a workplace free from religious discrimination.”
Oral arguments for Groff v. DeJoy are scheduled for April 18, 2023. The Law Group of Northwest Arkansas will update once an opinion has been entered in this matter.
Implications for Employers
The decision in Groff could change the way employers are required to accommodate employees and make it more difficult for employers to deny religious accommodation requests.
Our experienced employment law attorneys at The Law Group of Northwest Arkansas LLP can help you keep up with current employment law requirements. If you have questions or need help revising employee handbooks, policies, or practices or addressing such matters with specific employee requests to stay compliant, call us at 479-316-3760 or reach out online.