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On June 29, 2023, the United States Supreme Court unanimously decided to clarify Title VII’s “undue hardship” standard for religious accommodations in the workplace in Groff v. DeJoy, Postmaster General. The Court held that an employer must show that granting an employee’s requested religious accommodation would create a substantial burden on the overall business in order to legally deny the request as an “undue hardship.”

In the Groff opinion, the Court reviewed its prior ruling in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977) that involves the infamous sentence: “to require [an employer] to bear more than a de minimis cost in order to give . . . [an employee his or her accommodation] is an undue hardship.” This statement has been used by lower courts to downplay the responsibilities of employers to accommodate religious individuals in such situations. The Court found this statement erroneous and explained that the prior Hardison standard of “more than a de minimis cost,” when viewed in conjunction with the statutory language of Title VII, is insufficient to establish “undue hardship” on an employer.

With this clarification of the standard, the Court explained that an employer must grant religious accommodations to an employee unless the employer can show that granting the religious accommodation would subject the business to substantial cost or expenditures. This heightened standard will require courts to make fact-specific inquiries, considering all relevant factors in a case, including the particular accommodations at issue and their practical impact in light of the nature, size, and operating cost of the employer.

The United States Supreme Court covered two other issues from what it called the “erroneous de minimis interpretation of Hardison.” First, the Court’s ruling shifts the analysis of undue hardship specifically as it pertains to whether a particular requested religious accommodation would cause hardship on other employees. The Court clarified that the requested accommodation’s impact on co-workers is relevant only if that impact has further implications on the conduct of an employer’s business and only if that impact constitutes a “substantial increased cost” for the employer. The Court provided conspicuously little practical guidance on this new standard or what constitutes “substantial increased cost.” It is reasonable to note that this decision may impose a greater obligation on larger employers because demonstrating “substantial increased cost” may be more difficult for larger employers with large workforces and many employees available to perform other work tasks.

Second, the Court explained that, when faced with a religious accommodation request, an employer cannot simply address the reasonableness of one particular accommodation. Instead, the employer must consider options that would “reasonably accommodate the employee’s practice of religion.” The only example the Court provided is that an employer’s determination that forcing other employees to work overtime to accommodate the requesting employee’s religious practice would constitute an undue hardship was “not enough.” The Court explained that the employer in that situation would need to consider other options, “such as voluntary shift swapping,” in order to comply with Title VII. This new standard is clearly more rigorous than the de minimis analysis.

The Court’s heightened standard increases the burden on employers to evaluate the impact of requested religious accommodations and to re-calibrate their decision-making process in determining whether they can grant or deny a request for a religious accommodation.

Employers faced with requests for religious accommodations should be aware of this change in interpretation of Title VII requirements.

If you have questions about the employer’s burden in responding to requests for religious accommodations, please contact our labor and employment attorneys by calling (501) 371-9999.

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