Unanimous Supreme Court Decision on Undue Hardship Standard for Religious Accommodations

Martin is a Shareholder at Peters, Revnew, Kappenman & Anderson, P.A., a firm representing employers in a full range of employment law issues and litigation in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

On June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court clarified the standard for assessing whether religious accommodations would result in undue hardship for an employer.

Under Title VII, employers are required to accommodate an employee’s religious practice unless it causes the employer “undue hardship”. The Supreme Court interpreted undue hardship to mean anything more than a de minimis cost for an employer in Trans World Airlines v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977). This definition has been relied upon by courts ever since.

Now, the de minimis cost test is out. The Supreme Court has unanimously decided in Groff v. DeJoy that undue hardship is shown when the burden of granting a religious accommodation is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business.

Background (Groff v. DeJoy)

Groff was a U.S. Postal Service worker who refused to work on Sundays due to his religious beliefs. USPS offered to find other employees to trade shifts with him, but on numerous occasions, were unable to find anyone to take the shift and Groff would end up not working that shift. As a result, USPS fired him.

Groff sued USPS under Title VII, alleging that USPS failed to reasonably accommodate his religious beliefs because the shift swaps did not fully eliminate the conflict. The district court found that the requested accommodation would pose an undue hardship on USPS and granted summary judgment for USPS. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s ruling. The Supreme Court then heard oral arguments on April 18, 2023 and released its opinion on June 29, 2023.

Supreme Court’s Ruling

In a re-examination of Hardison, the Court concluded that the de minimis framework is incorrect. The Court determined that an employer claiming undue hardship must demonstrate that the burden of granting a religious accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of a business. Lower courts have been instructed to look at all relevant factors - including the particular accommodation and its impact in light of the nature, size, and operating cost of an employer, when applying this new standard to cases.

The Court provided some guidelines regarding how employers and courts should handle the impact on other employees when considering accommodations. An employer may not claim undue hardship solely based on an employee’s animosity towards a religion, religion in general, or the concept of accommodating religious practices. However, an accommodation’s impact on coworkers may be considered relevant if coworker impact goes on to significantly hamper conduct of the business.

Practical Considerations

Under the new standard, it will be easier for employees to seek religious accommodations. Employers will face a significantly higher burden in demonstrating that an accommodation is an undue hardship.

Accordingly, employers need to evaluate their approach to employee requests for religious accommodations. HR and management should be informed of the new standard. Existing policies around religious accommodations should be reviewed and updated if necessary. When faced with an employee's religious accommodation request, carefully assess the nature of the request and its potential impact on your business. This assessment should encompass financial implications, operational disruptions, impact on other employees, and available alternatives to the request.

If you have questions regarding the above or any other employment-related concerns, please contact Martin Kappenman at 952.921.4603 or mkappenman@prkalaw.com, or any other attorney at Peters, Revnew, Kappenman & Anderson, P.A.