Supreme Court Clarifies Undue Hardship Standard for Religious Accommodation Requests Under Title VII

On June 29, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Groff v. DeJoy that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires an employer that denies a religious accommodation to show that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business. In doing so, the Supreme Court revised the undue hardship standard under which employers may deny a religious accommodation to be significantly more employee-friendly. As a result, the Court remanded the case for application of the new standard to the facts at issue to determine whether the employer violated Title VII by failing to provide the requested accommodation.

Petitioner Gerald Groff, an Evangelical Christian who observed the Sunday Sabbath, worked as a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). Groff objected to delivering packages on Sunday. Although USPS endeavored to make other arrangements by assigning Sunday deliveries to other letter carriers, this accommodation resulted in scheduling conflicts, increased overtime expenses and resentment among employees for having to cover Sunday shifts. Groff was progressively disciplined for his unwillingness to perform his Sunday assignments and ultimately resigned. Groff subsequently sued his former employer under Title VII, asserting that USPS could have accommodated his Sunday Sabbath practice without undue hardship on the conduct of its business.

Title VII requires employers to “reasonably accommodate . . . an employee’s or prospective employee’s religious observance or practice” unless the employer is “unable” to do so “without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(j). Prior to Groff, federal courts interpreted the Supreme Court’s 1977 Trans World Airlines v. Hardison decision to have established a de minimis hardship standard for denying religious accommodation requests under Title VII. Following Hardison, employers were not required to grant an employee’s accommodation if doing so would impose a minimal burden on their business. Groff significantly raises the bar for such rejections, requiring employers to show that the accommodation “would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of [the employer’s] particular business.” 600 U.S. __, __ (2023) (slip op., at 18).

Religious belief is broadly defined under Title VII, which views “religion” as including “all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief . . . .” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(j). The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) interprets religious practices “to include moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.” 29 C.F.R. § 1605.1. Indeed, the EEOC’s Compliance Manual on Religious Discrimination (Compliance Manual) explains that religion not only includes theistic beliefs or traditional, organized religions but also “religious beliefs that are new, uncommon, not part of a formal church or sect, only subscribed to by a small number of people, or that seem illogical or unreasonable to others.” Compliance Manual § 12-I-A-1.

While Title VII requires employers to accommodate only sincerely held religious beliefs, employers face a difficult burden in challenging employees’ claimed religious beliefs. See Compliance Manual § 12-I-A-2. For example, the EEOC generally presumes that an employee’s religious belief is sincerely held. However, in the context of a religious accommodation request, employers may seek additional supporting documentation when the employer has an objective basis to question the sincerity of the employee’s belief, observance or practice. See Compliance Manual § 12-I-A-3. The inquiry must be restricted to whether or not the religious belief is sincerely held and is largely a matter of individual credibility. Factors that may undermine an employee’s credibility include:

  • Whether the employee has behaved in a manner markedly inconsistent with the professed belief
  • Whether the accommodation sought is a particularly desirable benefit that is likely to be sought for secular reasons
  • Whether the timing of the request renders it suspect (e.g., it follows an earlier request by the employee for the same benefit for secular reasons)
  • Whether the employer otherwise has reason to believe the accommodation is not sought for religious reasons

Compliance Manual § 12-I-A-2. Nevertheless, the EEOC cautions against relying on prior inconsistent conduct to question the sincerity of an employee’s belief because beliefs are not static and may change over time. In other words, even if an employee’s new beliefs may be inconsistent with prior conduct, they may still be sincerely held.

The question of whether granting a religious accommodation request imposes “substantial increased costs” is a fact-specific inquiry. The Supreme Court’s opinion provides little guidance on how to define substantial increased costs, instructing courts to consider “all relevant factors in the case at hand, including the particular accommodations at issue and their practical impact in light of the nature, ‘size and operating costs of [an] employer.’” Groff, 600 U.S. __, __ (2023) (slip op., at 18) (citation omitted). If an employer is considering denying such a request, it should carefully document the accommodations considered and the reasons they would impose substantial increased costs. Employers should prepare those responsible for managing employee religious accommodation requests accordingly and should review their training materials and religious accommodation policies and practices to reflect the new standard.

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