Supreme Court Enhances Employers’ Duty to Accommodate Employees’ Religious Practices
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), employing language similar to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), requires employers to reasonably accommodate the religious practices of employees unless the necessary accommodation creates an undue hardship for the employer. Yet, Title VII’s reasonable accommodation standard has been interpreted less robustly than the ADA’s. Specifically, the Supreme Court’s decision in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison (1972) has been understood, for more than 50 years, to require no more than de minimus accommodation to religious practices, i.e., small or trifling accommodation. This changed with the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Groff v. DeJoy, Case No. 22-174 (June 29, 2023).
In Groff, the employee’s religious beliefs prohibited him from working on Sundays. His employer, the United States Postal Service (USPS), did not believe this was a reasonable accommodation to religious practice under Hardison and engaged in progressive discipline when plaintiff missed assigned Sunday shifts. Eventually, plaintiff resigned in lieu of anticipated discharge. The issue presented was whether Title VII required the USPS to permit plaintiff to miss Sunday shifts because of his religion or whether permitting plaintiff to miss Sunday shifts constituted an undue hardship. The district court and the Third Circuit ruled in favor of the USPS. The Supreme Court reversed.
The Supreme Court reasoned that the clear language of Title VII required the USPS to reasonably accommodate plaintiff’s religious practice and, to the extent the lower courts thought this only meant a de minimus accommodation, they were incorrect. The Court further noted, consulting dictionary definitions, that “hardship” meant, at a minimum, “something hard to bear.” And the modifier “undue” meant the burden or difficulty rose to an “excessive” or “unjustifiable” level. Put differently, the Court stated, “[I]t is enough to say that what an employer must show is that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantially increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.”
As the lower courts had not applied the correct standard, the Court remanded the case back to the lower courts to permit them the opportunity to apply the facts to the newly articulated standard. Notably, the Court rejected the suggestion that the lower courts should simply apply case law interpreting the ADA’s duty to reasonably accommodate disability. The Court also rejected the suggestion the lower courts should simply apply EEOC guidance; which, to some extent, had incorporated the de minimus standard derived from Hardison. Additionally, the Court plainly stated that co-employees’ objections to reasonable accommodations were irrelevant. Finally, the Court stopped short of overruling any of its earlier opinions, including Hardison. Rather, the Court suggested Hardison had been misinterpreted and, separately, involved the proposed modification of a bona fide seniority system, a factor specifically mentioned as a defense to Title VII claims.