A New Standard for Religious Accommodations in the Workplace

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling in the case of Groff v. DeJoy, clarifying the rules for when an employer can or cannot deny an employee’s request for religious accommodation. It’s a case that will have ongoing importance. This post discusses the significance of the Groff decision and how it may affect both employers and employees.

Hardison, Hardships, and Holy Days: A Legal Backstory

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not allow employers to discriminate against employees on the basis of religion. In 1972, Title VII was amended to require employers to make reasonable accommodations for an employee’s religious beliefs, observances, or practices unless the accommodation would result in an “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer's business.”

In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison defined “undue hardship.” It said that it meant that an employer did not have to accommodate an employee’s religious observance if doing so created a burden that was “more than de minimis.” This rule was very friendly to employers. In most cases, all an employer had to do was show that a requested accommodation would create a more-than-minimal burden on the workplace or on other employees. Then the employer didn’t have to provide the accommodation.

The Hardison “more than minimal” rule was difficult for employees whose religious beliefs required them to observe Sabbath days of rest and worship. For example, if an employee wanted to take Saturdays or Sundays off, their employer could usually meet the “undue hardship” threshold. It would only have to show that giving the day off would impose burdens on co-workers who would have to cover shifts on those days.

In 1990, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a law that requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. It defined “undue hardship” differently, as “significant difficulty or expense.” The result was a discrepancy—a very low bar for “undue hardship” under Hardison for employers to deny religious accommodations and a much higher bar under the ADA to deny disability accommodations.

Sabbaths, Shifts, and Substantial Costs: The Groff Decision

The Groff case involved a U.S. Postal Service mail carrier who needed a religious accommodation not to work on Sundays. After being denied this accommodation, he sued the Post Office under Title VII for refusal to accommodate his religion. Both the trial court and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Groff, following the “more-than-minimal” Hardison standard. The lower courts found that that exempting Groff from Sunday work would create an undue hardship on the Post Office because it would have “imposed on his coworkers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale.”

Groff appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. He asked the Court to overrule the “de minimis” standard from Hardison and instead apply the ADA “significant difficulty or expense” standard for undue hardship. The Court did not adopt the ADA standard, but did create a new standard for undue hardship. The Court held that Title VII 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.”

By relating “undue hardship” to the conduct of an employer’s business, the Court clarified that the impact of a requested accommodation on co-workers, by itself, is not enough to create an undue hardship. “Faced with an accommodation request like Groff’s,” the Court said, “an employer must do more than conclude that forcing other employees to work overtime would constitute an undue hardship.” Needing to have other employees cover Sunday shifts for Groff so he could observe the Sabbath was not an undue hardship.

Implications of the Groff Decision

The Groff decision is good news for employees who are religious minorities or who have religious practices that conflict with workplace policies. The new “substantial increased costs” standard for undue hardship makes Title VII much more employee-protective. Employers should be aware of the new standard for religious accommodations. Refusing to accommodate an employee can result in substantial legal liability.

Groff is a case about Sabbath observance, but employees may need many other kinds of religious accommodations. And employers may now have to provide them, despite inconvenience to other employees. Examples include:

  • allowing employees to wear religious garments or alternative clothing in the workplace,
  • providing employee meals that omit pork products or other certain foods,
  • accommodating daily prayer regimens and fasting schedules,
  • permitting employees to attend religious ceremonies during work hours, and
  • exempting employees from tasks or activities to which they have a conscientious objection.

Also, in a post-COVID-19 workplace, the Groff decision may impact religious exemptions to workplace vaccine mandates. Employers working through these problems may want to consult with legal counsel who is knowledgeable on these issues.


Featured Image by Rebecca Sidebotham.

Because of the generality of the information on this site, it may not apply to a given place, time, or set of facts. It is not intended to be legal advice, and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations