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On June 29, 2023, the US Supreme Court issued a rare unanimous decision in Groff versus DeJoy, and set a higher standard for employers to meet when denying religious accommodations under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act 1964 (“Title VII”). Before Groff, employers were free to deny a religious accommodation that imposed “more than a de minimis cost” on the employer’s business. Following Groff, however, employers must now show that the burden of granting a religious accommodation “would result in substantially increased costs in relation to conducting their specific business”. This case has implications for all employers evaluating requests for employee religious accommodations and must be carefully considered when granting or denying such requests.

Gerald Groff, the plaintiff in Groff, was an evangelical Christian rural mailman employed by the United States Postal Service (“USPS”) in Pennsylvania. Groff believed that Sundays should be devoted to worship and rest rather than work. During Groff’s employment, the USPS contracted with a third-party e-commerce site to deliver its packages on Sundays and scheduled Groff, among other carriers, to work on Sundays. Although Groff requested a religious accommodation to be excused from Sunday service, his request was denied. When Groff refused to report to work on Sundays, other team members were forced to take over his duties. According to the USPS, this resulted in significant disruptions to its business, multiple employee complaints, and at least one union complaint from an employee required to take over Groff’s shifts. The USPS subjected Groff to progressive discipline as he refused to report to work for more than twenty Sunday shifts. Groff resigned and sued the USPS for religious discrimination in violation of Title VII.

Under Title VII, employers are required to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs and practices unless doing so would impose “undue hardship” on the conduct of the employer’s business. Before Groffcourts assessed whether a requested accommodation imposed an “undue burden” under the test established by the Supreme Court in the 1977 case Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. hardison, which considered that an accommodation imposed an undue burden when it required an employer to bear “more than a de minimis cost”. Applying hardison, both the lower court that initially reviewed Groff’s case and the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld the USPS decision to deny Groff’s request for accommodation. More specifically, the Third Circuit sustained that Groff’s waiver request imposed more than a de minimis cost because it “imposed it on his coworkers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and lowered employee morale.”

Groff appealed to the Supreme Court, asking it to reconsider Hardison’s “de minimis cost” test. Instead, Groff urged the Court to adopt the test to assess whether a requested accommodation constitutes an “undue burden” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), which requires an employer to demonstrate that the accommodation would impose a “significant hardship or expense.” The USPS, on the other hand, asked the Court to state hardison and submit to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s interpretations of what constitutes an “undue burden” in the context of religious accommodation.

In a 9-0 opinion authored by Justice Alito, the Supreme Court overturned the Third Circuit, ruling that it applied the wrong test to Groff’s Title VII claims. However, the Court declined to adopt the tests proposed by Groff or the USPS, holding that both went “too far”. Analyzing hardison and the language of Title VII, the Court determined that the “cost de minimis” test was a misinterpretation of the hardisonis holding and set the bar too low. As Judge Alito noted, this standard, “if taken literally, suggests that even a pittance may be too much for an employer to be forced to bear.” Instead, the Supreme Court held that the proper test for determining whether a requested religious accommodation imposes an undue burden under Title VII is whether it “would result in a substantial increase in costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business”, taking into account ” all relevant factors in question, including the specific accommodations in question and their practical impact in light of the nature, size and cost of operating an employer”. Judge Alito concluded that the Third Circuit’s application of the “cost de minimis” test “may have led the court to reject a number of possible accommodations, including those involving the cost of paying incentives or the administrative costs of coordinating with other stations. close with a broader set of employees,” and noted Groff for reconsideration under the new test, noting that the USPS may still prevail.

In light of Groff, an employer’s refusal of an employee’s request for religious accommodation becomes more difficult to justify. While the standard for religious accommodations remains lower than the standard for disability-related accommodations under the ADA, a demonstration of “substantially increased costs” is not insignificant. Employers who are faced with requests for religious accommodation should carefully assess the nature of the request and the impact on their individual business and explore all available alternatives before denying a request. We will continue to monitor the impact of the Supreme Court decision on Groff and provide updates as they become available.