In so doing, the Court explained that the USPS was required to “reasonably accommodate” the carrier’s religious beliefs and practices, provided it would not create an undue hardship on its business. Although such a pronouncement is not remarkable, what is remarkable is the way in which the Court defined “undue hardship.” It defined it in such a way as to reject a narrower standard that has been used for nearly 50 years. As such, the opinion broadens protections for workers who need accommodations for sincerely held religious beliefs or practices.
The case involves a plaintiff, Gerald Groff, who was employed by USPS for seven years. During his employment, USPS disciplined him for missing work on multiple Sundays for his observance of the Sunday Sabbath. Eventually, the plaintiff resigned from his job and filed a lawsuit against USPS alleging religious discrimination for the failure to accommodate his religious practices.
Under Title VII, employers must accommodate the sincerely held religious beliefs of their employees when the accommodation does not create an “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” Prior to Groff, an accommodation caused an undue hardship on the employer if it would have required the employer to bear “more than a de minimis cost.” Based on this standard, the USPS argued that Groff’s refusal to work any Sunday would place an undue hardship on coworkers who would need to cover for him to handle the weekend workload. Although USPS has a large workforce, it had few mail carriers where Groff worked in rural Central Pennsylvania. Thus, USPS argued that allowing Groff to take every Sunday off would create an undue hardship in part because of the burden that it would put on other employees.
Many filed amicus briefs, including the EEOC’s former General Counsel and other former EEOC employees, arguing the de minimis standard effectively nullified the protections under Title VII because it is too easily met. Indeed, the Third Circuit – whose opinion led to this appeal to the Supreme Court – held that the fact that Groff’s accommodation would inconvenience his coworkers, without harm to the business, was enough to meet the de minimis standard. The appellate court noted that “poor morale among the workforce and disruption of workflow” are circumstances that “could affect an employer’s business and could constitute undue hardship.” As for Groff, he argued the standard for “undue hardship” should be “significant difficulty or expense,” which is the standard that applies to accommodation requests for a disability.
On Thursday, the Court rejected both the USPS’s and Groff’s standards. Instead, it held that “an employer must show that the burden on granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.” In applying this new standard, the Court explained that employers must take into account all relevant factors in each situation, including the practical impact of the proposed accommodation given the “size and operating cost” of the employer. In Groff’s situation, forcing employees to work overtime would not constitute an undue hardship. That said, the Court declined to decide whether that meant that Groff’s accommodation still posed an undue hardship to USPS under the new standard. Instead, the Court remanded the case to the Third Circuit for that determination.
This Supreme Court decision, as well as the Third Circuit decision that will come in this case and many other decisions applying the new standard, likely will pave the way for increased religious accommodations in the workplace. Therefore, at a minimum, employers should review their current accommodation policies and practices and revise them to account for the more onerous standard for undue burden that employers must now meet before denying a religious accommodation. Should employers have any questions regarding how to apply the new standard, they should consult experienced employment counsel.