This morning, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously toppled decades-old precedent governing an employer’s treatment of religious accommodation requests. While the decision in Groff v. DeJoy has been overshadowed by Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, which threw out Harvard and UNC’s affirmative action programs, Groff has broad-reaching impacts for all employers in the United States by changing the standard under which employers should evaluate requests for accommodations.
Federal law has long governed religious accommodation requests under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Up until today, when an employer received a request for a religious accommodation, employers could plausibly reject the request if the employer could show that the accommodation would result in more than a de minimis burden. This standard arose from Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63, which held that an employer was not required to provide an employee with the Sabbath off because “[t]o require [the employer] to bear more than a de minimis cost in order to give [the employee] Saturdays off is an undue hardship.”
This has had important modern implications; for example, in considering vaccination exemptions due to religious beliefs, employers have used this “more than a de minimus cost” standard to evaluate such requests. Thus, “undue hardship” for religious accommodations has been viewed as substantially different than “undue burden” under other laws, like the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Today, the Supreme Court expressly disavowed the “more than a de minimis cost” phrase, holding that such a showing does not establish “undue hardship” under Title VII.
So what does “undue hardship” mean under Title VII? Rather than adopting the standard used for ADA cases outright, the court noted that it is to be case specific while still leaving the door open to its particulars. “We think it is enough to say that an employer must show that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.”
The Supreme Court turned to the text of the statute to note that “hardship” is “something hard to bear,” while the modifier “undue” means that the adversity is “excessive” or “unjustifiable.” At minimum, an undue hardship is something greater than hardship. Ultimately, courts will have to evaluate the possible accommodation’s effect on “the conduct of the employer’s business” and ask if it is too much to bear. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(j). Of course, an employer cannot deny a religious accommodation due to its own opposition to religious practice – that is, the concept of accommodating a religion cannot in and of itself be “undue.”
In practice, the application of this standard will likely take at least some helpful guidance from how employers consider requests for accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), but it remains uncharted waters. For now, employers must be prepared to consider religious accommodations requests on a case-by-case basis and look at its own size, the costs, and other factors, to determine whether such requests are reasonable or an undue burden to the company. Consulting with legal counsel during these next few months will be critical to helping organizations shape their responses.