On June 29, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its unanimous opinion in the case of Groff v. Dejoy, No. 22-174, 600 U.S. __ (2023) (slip opinion linked here).

Facts, Briefly. Gerald Groff, an Evangelical Christian and a Rural Carrier Associate employed by the U.S. Postal Service, believed for religious reasons that Sunday should be devoted to worship and rest, not "secular labor" and the transportation of worldly items. During his employment, the USPS entered into an agreement with Amazon to begin facilitating Sunday deliveries, and USPS signed a memorandum of understanding with the National Rural Letter Carriers' Association (a union) that set out how Sunday and holiday parcel delivery would be handled, including by Rural Carrier Associates.

Mr. Groff refused to work on Sundays, and he was disciplined for it. He eventually resigned and soon thereafter sued the USPS under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, asserting that USPS could have accommodated his Sunday Sabbath practice without undue hardship on the conduct of USPS's business. See 42 U. S. C. §2000e(j) (defining "religion" under Title VII).

The federal district court granted summary judgment to, and ruled in favor of USPS. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, basing its decision on the U.S. Supreme Court opinion of Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U. S. 63, 84 (1977) and finding that "undue hardship," as used in Title VII, meant "that requiring an employer 'to bear more than a de minimis cost' to provide a religious accommodation is an undue hardship." 35 F. 4th 162, 174, n. 18; see also 29 C.F.R. § 1605.2(e) ("An employer may assert undue hardship to justify a refusal to accommodate an employee's need to be absent from his or her scheduled duty hours if the employer can demonstrate that the accommodation would require 'more than a de minimis cost'") (emphasis added).

The U.S. Supreme Court granted Mr. Groff's petition for writ of certiorari.

Issue. Under 42 U. S. C. §2000e(j), is an "undue hardship" established when an employer shows that it bears more than a de minimis cost to provide a religious accommodation, or is a higher burden required for an employer to lawfully refuse to accommodate a religious belief of an employee?

Primary Holding. "Undue hardship," as used in 42 U. S. C. §2000e(j), is shown when a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer's business. "More than a de minimis cost" does not suffice to establish "undue hardship" under Title VII.

Key Points of Law

Title VII. Title VII makes it an unlawful employment practice for an employer to fail or refuse to hire or terminate any individual, or otherwise discriminate against any individual, because of the individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). Title VII applies to, among other classes of employers, private-sector employers with 15 or more employees.

Religion. The term "religion," as used in Title VII, "includes all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief, unless an employer demonstrates that he is unable to reasonably accommodate to an employee's or prospective employee's religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer's business." Id. at § 2000e(j) (emphasis added). Title VII requires that an employer reasonably accommodate an employee's practice of religion, not merely that it assess the reasonableness of a particular possible accommodation or accommodations.

Employer's Burden. "[A]n 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. . . . [A]n 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." Groff, 600 U.S. __ (2023) (slip opinion pg. 18).

Judicial Application. Courts must apply the test in a manner that takes into account all relevant factors, such as the particular accommodations at issue and their practical impact on the employer, other workers, and operations, all in light of the nature, size and operating cost of an employer. "[C]ourts should resolve whether a hardship would be substantial in the context of an employer's business in the commonsense manner that it would use in applying any such test." Id. at pg. 19.

Considerations of "Undue Burden." An accommodation's effect on co-workers may have ramifications for the conduct of the employer's business. "An employer who fails to provide an accommodation has a defense only if the hardship is 'undue,' and a hardship that is attributable to employee animosity to a particular religion, to religion in general, or to the very notion of accommodating religious practice cannot be considered 'undue.' If bias or hostility to a religious practice or a religious accommodation provided a defense to a reasonable accommodation claim, Title VII would be at war with itself." Id. at pg. 20.

Insights. The holding in Groff is a victory for employees with sincerely held religious beliefs who request that their employer reasonably accommodate the practice of those beliefs. Following the Groff decision, employers will be wise to employ a careful analysis of how an employee's request for religious accommodation will impact the employer, other workers, and operations, all in light of the nature, size and operating cost of an employer. The Supreme Court concluded its unanimous opinion as shown below, which illustrates that the lower courts, including the lower court in Groff, will be tasked with establishing, on a case-by-case basis, the exterior confines of the high Court's holding:

Having clarified the Title VII undue-hardship standard, we think it appropriate to leave the context-specific application of that clarified standard to the lower courts in the first instance. The Third Circuit assumed that Hardison prescribed a "more than a de minimis cost" test. . ., 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.

For other Freeman Law Insights blog on Title VII and religious discrimination, see The Righteous Stand Bold Like a Lion | Bostock, Religious Organization Employers, and Title VII.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.