The Supreme Court changes the rules on religion-based accommodation requests, making it harder for employers to say “no.”
Title VII to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects applicants and employees from discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.
On June 29, the US Supreme Court took a fresh look at religion-based accommodations in Groff v. DeJoy (600 U.S. ___ (2023)) and overruled 46 years of precedent in a 6-3 decision holding that employers must grant an employee’s accommodation request unless it would result in substantial increased costs for the employer.
The plaintiff, Groff, began work as a rural mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service in 2012, and his religion forbade work on Sundays.
For several years, Sunday work wasn’t required by the USPS. However, after Groff’s headquarters contracted with Amazon for Sunday deliveries, he faced rotating schedules that included Sundays.
Groff refused to work on Sundays, citing his religious beliefs. He received a transfer to a rural post office that didn’t make Amazon deliveries. However, eventually that office started Sunday Amazon deliveries too. The USPS tried to grant Groff’s schedule change requests, but doing so was damaging employee engagement and morale because Groff’s teammates were adversely impacted when Groff didn’t work his share of Sundays.
Groff received progressive discipline as a result of his refusal to work on Sundays, and he ultimately resigned when the issues were unresolved.
In the ensuing litigation, The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, relying on the US Supreme Court’s 1977 decision in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison (432 U.S. 63), ruled in favor of the USPS and said the employer need only show more than a “de minimis,” or minor, interruption in business or additional costs in order to deny a request for religious accommodation.
But the Supreme Court overruled Trans World Airlines and held 6-3 in Groff that employers must be held to a higher, case-by-case standard before they can refuse to accommodate an employee’s sincere religion-based request.
Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that Trans World Airlines had been misconstrued by the courts through the years. He reasoned that the clear language of Title VII requires reasonable accommodation absent “undue hardship,” which had to mean more than just slightly above minimum effect. For a hardship to be “undue,” it must result in significant cost to the employer based on that employer’s circumstances. The fact that Groff’s request worked a hardship on co-workers who had to work his scheduled Sundays was insufficient to meet the “undue hardship” standard.
Justice Alito also noted that the old Trans World Airlines “more than de minimis” test was in conflict with the EEOC’s internal guidelines for administering Title VII. The EEOC looks at “undue hardship” as something really difficult for the employer to accommodate and involving substantial cost impacts.
So the high court remanded the Groff case back to the 3rd circuit for further deliberations in accordance with the new accommodation standard.
Interestingly, the old Trans World Airlines case involved Hardison’s request for schedule changes that conflicted with seniority provisions contained in a MOU supplementing the governing CBA. And the Supreme Court ruled in that case that seniority provisions in a collectively bargained labor agreement take precedence over Title VII as an exception to that law. The airline company therefore was not required to accommodate Hardison’s requests for accommodation because that would violate the CBA.
The new Groff case does not address or revisit the issue of seniority provisions in a CBA. Does that mean that the old Trans World Airlines case is still good law on the issue of accommodation requests that would violate provisions of a CBA? That’s a question for lawyers to debate and future courts to address. The Groff case is strangely silent.
Another concern for employers is whether the Groff case will increase the volume of litigation or agency actions. The old “more than de minimis” test was employer-friendly on its face and provided a lot of discretion for employers in balancing the interests of the company and the employee. The Groff standard tilts the balance toward an employee’s right to accommodation.
The aim of this article is simply to alert employers that the rules on accommodating an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs have changed and will be viewed by the courts in a light more favorable to employees.
Companies will effectively manage risk in employment decisions when their leaders are aware of basic legal requirements, know when and how to reach out for help, and understand how to fairly and consistently administer labor agreements and company policies.
MARC has been a leader in providing training and assistance for employers in these areas for over 40 years.
Visit our Services page to see how MARC can serve you.