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Publications | June 30, 2023
3 minute read

Supreme Court Clarifies Religious Accommodation Undue Burden Test Under Title VII

Yesterday, in Gerald E. Groff v. Louis DeJoy, Postmaster General, the United States Supreme Court clarified what an employer must show if it denies an employee’s request for a workplace accommodation based on religious beliefs. Title VII requires employers to accommodate the religious practices of their employees unless doing so would impose an “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” At issue, Petitioner Groff was an Evangelical Christian who believed that Sundays should be devoted to worship and rest. Groff, who delivered mail for the United States Postal Service, challenged the US Postal Service’s denial of his request to not work on Sundays due to the impact it would have on other employees.

Groff brought suit against the Postal Service for violation of Title VII, and both the District Court and Third Circuit ruled in favor of the Postal Service. These courts relied on Hardison, a Supreme Court case from 1977, to support the idea that changing workflows, increasing the work of coworkers and impacting morale created a “de minimis” cost on the Postal Service and, therefore, was an undue hardship. Finding that an undue hardship was created meant the Postal Service was not required to grant Groff’s request. Hardison has been frequently used to support employers that deny religious accommodation requests because of any consequence the accommodation may create.

In its unanimous decision, the Supreme Court reexamined its decision in Hardison and ruled that the “more than de minimis” standard, which has been repeatedly used, was improper. Hardison focused primarily on what hardship would come from an accommodation that violated an employer’s bona fide seniority system. But the line from Hardison that is often quoted to support the “de minimis” test would, if taken literally, suggest that even a miniscule expense to the employer would create an undue burden. The Court explained that this would be improper.

The Supreme Court held that “more than a de minimis cost” did not establish an undue burden under Title VII. Instead, employers have to show that a burden is so substantial, within the context of the business and the employee’s request, that it would be excessive or unjustifiable to endure. Additionally, the Court noted that when courts examine a potential undue hardship, they must consider all relevant factors to the specific case at issue, including the specific request and its “practical impact in light of the nature, size and operating cost of an employer.”

Finally, the Supreme Court emphasized that if an employer denies an accommodation request on the basis of undue hardship, the employer is still required to consider other options to accommodate the employee. Ultimately, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower courts to determine if in the specific context of Groff’s case an undue hardship existed. It did not preclude the possibility that, after more factual analysis, the Postal Service could still prevail.

For questions about this case or any labor and employment matters, please contact a member of Warner’s Labor and Employment Practice Group or your Warner attorney.