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Religious Belief Accommodations: A Heavier Burden for Employers After the U.S. Supreme Court’s Decision in Groff v. DeJoy

by | Apr 23, 2024 | blog, Employment Law, Employment Litigation |

On June 29, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Groff v. DeJoy, 600 U.S. 447, 143 S. Ct. 2279, 216 L. Ed. 2d 1041 (2023). The decision represents a significant shift in religious accommodation law, including how employers are required to accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious practices and beliefs. It raises the standard and requires that employers make (and be able to show) greater efforts to accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs and practices than what has been required in decades past.

Factual Background

Groff, a United States Postal Service (“USPS”) worker, worked at a rural USPS office that began working with Amazon to deliver packages on Sundays. Groff requested an accommodation not to work his Sunday shifts so he could observe and practice his religious beliefs. USPS accommodated his request as a reasonable accommodation, but later required him to work on Sundays when it could not find other postal workers to work Sunday shifts. Groff then transferred to another USPS office that did not deliver on Sundays. Eventually, that office also began delivering Amazon packages on Sundays and often could not find other employees to cover Groff’s Sunday shifts. The USPS office once again required Groff to work some Sunday shifts, and, when Groff failed to do so, he was disciplined. Groff eventually resigned and filed a lawsuit against USPS claiming failure to accommodate under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

New Test Imposed By the Supreme Court

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, using the de minimis test for undue hardship, agreed with the district court that accommodating Groff’s request not to work on Sundays to observe his religious beliefs posed an undue hardship for the USPS office, and disrupted USPS’ business and ability to efficiently deliver packages on Sundays.

However, the Supreme Court overruled the Third Circuit’s use of the de minimis test for undue hardship and held that employers must make more substantial efforts to accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs before claiming an undue hardship and denying the request for a reasonable accommodation.

The Supreme Court determined that the measure of “hardship” in connection with a religious accommodation is more than a mere burden; rather, it is “something hard to bear.” For the hardship to be “undue,” it must rise to an “excessive” or “unjustifiable” level. The new test articulated by the Supreme Court in Groff requires that “an employer show that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.” Groff’s undue hardship test is highly fact-specific and requires courts and employers to assess “all relevant factors” in each case, including the accommodations at issue and their impact in light of the nature, size, and operating costs of an employer, among other factors.

Although the Supreme Court did not specifically discuss what USPS should have done before denying the requested accommodation as an undue hardship, the Court reasoned that USPS may have considered offering incentive pay to other employees to work Sunday shifts or coordinating with neighboring post offices employees to deliver packages on Sundays.

What the Groff Ruling Means for Employers Moving Forward

California employers may be familiar with the Fair Employment and Housing Act’s similar undue hardship standard for employees requesting time off for religious holidays (defined as “an action requiring significant difficulty or expense” when considered in light of several factors, including the overall size of the employer and the nature and cost of the accommodation needed). However, the practical implications of the Groff decision for employers are even more far reaching – employers must now engage in a more rigorous evaluation of potential accommodations, including scheduling flexibility, job duties, and dress codes, in light of an employee’s religious needs, in addition to whether the accommodation would cause sustained, increased monetary costs or decreased efficiency, whether it would detrimentally affect other employees’ schedules or day-to-day work life, and/or whether the accommodation would pose health or safety risks.

Under Groff, employers should only deny an employee’s religious accommodation request if they can clearly point to substantial increased costs that are hard to bear, or other hardships that are excessive or unjustifiable.

Employers should consider providing training for employees involved with religious accommodation decisions and updating applicable internal religious accommodation policies.

Duggan McHugh attorneys are available to provide advice and counsel to employers navigating employee religious accommodation requests and to assist with review and updates to your business’ religious accommodation policies to comply with the law.