US Supreme Court Clarifies Religious Accommodation Requirements for Employers

Last month, the US Supreme Court released a number of impactful decisions, including one with an updated clarification on employers’ requirements to provide religious accommodations. In Groff v. DeJoy (2023), the Court clarified that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act requires employers to accommodate the religious practice of their employees unless doing so would impose an “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” Courts have traditionally recognized this “undue hardship” to mean nothing more than a “de minimus” cost, but in Groff, the Court clarified that such standard is insufficient and that employers may only deny a request for a reasonable accommodation if it presents a more excessive or unjustifiable cost to the conduct of the employer’s business.

In Hardison v. Trans World Airlines, Inc. (1977), the Supreme Court decided on the matter of a TWA employee, Larry Hardison, who for religious reasons, requested a schedule from his employer, TWA, that did not require him to work on [Saturdays]. Because Hardison was not eligible for such a request under TWA’s seniority system, TWA did not grant the request because it would have required an override of its own seniority system. In its decision, the prior Court evaluated TWA’s responsibility to provide a religious accommodation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and said: “[t]o require TWA to bear more than a de minimis cost in order to give Hardison Saturdays off is an undue hardship.” In the fallout from this prior decision, many courts have interpreted this to mean that an employer may deny a request for a religious accommodation when such accommodation presents more than a “de minimus” cost.

In Groff, the Court clarified that the “de minimus” standard is incorrect. According to the Court, “[Hardison] described the governing standard quite differently, stating three times that an accommodation is not required when it entails “substantial” “costs” or “expenditures.” The current Court further clarified the meaning of “undue hardship” as something that is “hard to bear,” and “more severe than a burden.” According to the Court, “[the costs of an accommodation] would have to rise to the level of hardship, and adding the modifier ‘undue’ means that the requisite burden, privation, or adversity must rise to an ‘excessive’ or ‘unjustifiable’ level.” In short, “it means something very different from a burden that is merely more than de minimus, i.e. something that is ‘very small or trifling.”

How Employers Should Respond

In response to these clarifications, employers should take care to ensure that they properly receive and consider employees’ requests for religious accommodations and should not rely on “small or trifling” burdens to deny a request. Employers should follow the Court’s guidance to conduct an analysis to determine “whether a hardship would be substantial in the context of an employer’s business in the common-sense manner that it would use in applying any test.” Such language suggests that employers should adopt a more robust analysis to determine whether or not a proposed religious accommodation actually presents an “excessive” or “unjustifiable” cost to the “conduct of the employer’s business.”

Employers should also be aware that the Court addressed burdens that may come from an accommodation’s impact on coworkers. Employers can consider such impacts, but employers must find that such impacts amount to consequences that have ramifications for the actual conduct of the employer’s business (as opposed to impacts solely on coworkers). The Court clarified that employers may not take into consideration a coworker’s dislike or animosity towards religion. Also, in analyzing the appropriateness of an accommodation, employers must determine whether the proposal reasonably accommodates an employee’s practice of religion . . . not merely assess the reasonableness of a particular possible accommodation. Finally, the Court did state that some of the EEOC’s guidance on religious accommodations should be current and in alignment with its decision, but employers should also expect the EEOC to release updated guidance in response to the Court’s updated clarifications.

Employers can additionally ensure compliance with the clarified standards by revisiting handbooks and policies to ensure that there is not any language that relies on previous courts’ improper interpretations of “undue hardship.” Employers should also address the clarified requirements regarding religious accommodations in trainings with their managers and supervisors and should implement appropriate reporting structures so that they can properly respond to any requests for religious accommodations.

If you have any questions about these new updates or how to respond to requests for religious accommodations, please contact your Kunzler Bean & Adamson attorneys.

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