Supreme Court Addresses Religious Discrimination at Work
On June 29, 2023 the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision clarifying how employers should consider employee requests to accommodate religious practices. In Groff v. DeJoy,1 the Court held that in order to deny a religious accommodation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an employer must show that the accommodation is burdensome and would result in substantially increased costs relating to the conduct of its business.
In 2012, Gerald Groff, a devout Evangelical Christian, was hired as a rural postal carrier by the United States Postal Service (USPS). Groff refrained from labor and transporting “worldly goods” on the Sabbath to use his Sundays for rest and worship. At that time, rural carriers did not deliver on Sundays, but that changed in 2013 when the post office began to contract with Amazon to make Sunday deliveries. In 2016, USPS and the carriers’ union negotiated scheduling for Sunday and holiday deliveries whereby post offices would initially use their own staff for package delivery and Sunday and holiday deliveries would be handled by employees from a regional hub. Eventually, though, the volume of deliveries required all carriers working from a regional hub to deliver, with Sunday assignments being made on a non-seniority-based rotation.
Groff requested a transfer and was moved to a smaller post office that did not make Sunday deliveries, but by March 2017, Amazon deliveries began from that location as well. USPS accommodated Groff by having coworkers, including the postmaster, step in during the peak season and redistributing his Sunday shifts to other carriers within the regional hub during the non-peak season. At least one coworker complained about this arrangement. In January 2019, Groff resigned due to progressive discipline and the belief that he was going to be terminated.
Groff sued USPS for failing to accommodate his Sunday Sabbath when doing so would, in his view, not cause undue hardship on the conduct of USPS’s business. The trial court granted summary judgment to USPS, and on appeal, the Third Circuit upheld the trial court’s ruling, relying on earlier rulings “that requiring an employer ‘to bear more than a de minimis cost’ to provide a religious accommodation is an undue hardship.”2
Importantly, the Supreme Court declined to overrule the earlier Hardison standard, instead concluding that employers must show “more than…de minimis” hardship before declining an accommodation. It stated that the “undue hardship” standard is met when a burden substantially affects the employer’s business. The Court defined this as something closer to “substantial additional costs, or substantial expenditures,” and suggested 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.”
In addition to clarifying this standard, the Court noted that employers must do more than just assess the reasonableness of an accommodation -- they must also make accommodation by considering all options, such as voluntary shift swapping. The Court did not address the facts of the Groff case specifically, instead noting: “The Third Circuit assumed that Hardison prescribed a ‘more than a de minimis cost’ test [citation omitted], and this may have led the court to dismiss a number of possible accommodations, including those involving the cost of incentive pay, or the administrative costs of coordination with other nearby stations with a broader set of employees. Without foreclosing the possibility that USPS will prevail, we think it appropriate to leave it to the lower courts to apply our clarified context-specific standard, and to decide whether any further factual development is needed.”
Justice Sotomayor concurred, adding two observations. First, she noted that Title VII has been revised multiple times in response to other court decisions but Congress saw no need to revise it in light of Hardison. Justice Sotomayor also distinguished her support for the holding by noting that the standard is whether there is undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business, and that because the conduct of the business includes the management and performance of the employees of the business that can be a consideration in the analysis. She went on to note that, “To be sure, some effects on co-workers will not constitute ‘undue hardship’ under Title VII… Nevertheless, if there is an undue hardship on ‘the conduct of the employer’s business’, then such hardship is sufficient, even if it consists of hardship on employees.”
Takeaways for employers:
- While Groff does not interfere with Title VII’s protections for seniority-based bidding systems, employers must nonetheless ensure that the bidding system cannot be reconciled with a religious accommodation request before declining to accommodate.
- Employers should not assume that a de minimis additional cost will void the need to make an accommodation, and should instead consider other options such as trading shifts or using incentives if these are available.