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February 15, 2024 Employment Law

How the Supreme Court Expanded Religious Rights in the Workplace in Groff v. DeJoy

Workplace discrimination law is constantly in flux. While landmark civil rights laws and cases are rare, the Supreme Court occasionally issues decisions that can nonetheless have significant implications for the existing anti-discrimination legal framework. The Court issued one such decision last year — Groff v. DeJoy — that concerns religious discrimination in the workplace and the lengths to which employers must go to accommodate the religious practices of their employees. Religious accommodations in the workplace are an increasingly pertinent aspect of employment law; both employers and employees who are facing religious accommodation issues should speak to a Richmond employment lawyer

Religious Discrimination Under Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act 

Religious discrimination is prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (CRA) of 1964. Generally, the CRA prohibits the following behaviors with respect to religion: 

  1. Fail or refuse to hire or discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to their compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s religion 
  2. Limit, segregate, or classify employees or applicants for employment in any way that would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect their status as an employee, because of such individual’s religion

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the regulatory body that enforces the CRA and investigates potential violations thereof, also recognizes religious discrimination when it occurs through harassment. This could include, for example, making offensive remarks about a person’s religious beliefs. In some cases, employers may be liable if such harassment rises to the level of a hostile work environment. For more information about pursuing or defending a hostile work environment allegation, please contact a Richmond employment lawyer

Reasonable Accommodations and Undue Hardships 

The CRA does not just prohibit religious discrimination; it also requires employers to make reasonable accommodations to for employees whose religious beliefs, practices, or observances may conflict with a work requirement. However, whether a particular accommodation is “reasonable” is an intensely fact-specific inquiry and subject to interpretation. Reasonable accommodations in the religion context could relate, for example, to employee schedules, dress and grooming, and religious expression in the workplace. 

Like almost all employment laws, however, there is an exception — an employer is not obligated to provide an accommodation if the provision of the accommodation would cause an undue hardship. Like determining whether an accommodation is “reasonable” determining whether a hardship is “undue” is an intensely fact-specific and interpretive exercise. The Supreme Court has never articulated a bright line rule for determining whether a hardship is undue, but it held in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison (1977) that an employer must show that the accommodation would require it to bear “more than a de minimis cost” to prove undue hardship. Factors the courts consider when determining whether a cost is “more than de minimis” include: 

  • The cost in relation to the size and operating costs of the employer
  • The number of individuals who will need an accommodation
  • Whether the accommodation will require regular payment of premium wages (e.g., overtime
  • Whether the accommodation will require the hiring of additional employees 

Parties seeking religious accommodations or information regarding their requirements to do so should consult a Richmond employment lawyer

How Groff v. DeJoy Expanded Employees’ Religious Rights

In Groff, the Supreme Court rejected the “de minimis” standard it had previously established in Hardison, instead holding that Title VII of the CRA requires an employer who 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. 

Gerald Groff, the petitioner in Groff, was an Evangelical Christian who believed that Sundays should be reserved for rest and worship. Groff was employed as a United States Postal Service (USPS) worker, whose job typically did not involve work on Sundays. However, he was eventually called in to work on Sundays after the USPS began delivering Amazon packages on Sundays. Groff remained unwilling to work on Sundays, and the USPS redistributed his duties to other workers. Eventually, Groff was subject to increasingly severe disciplinary actions for his refusal to work on Sundays and eventually quit. He then sued under Title VII, arguing that the USPS could have accommodated his Sunday Sabbath practice without undue hardship. 

The trial court, as well as the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, sided with the USPS. The appellate court found that exempting Groff from working on Sundays “imposed on his coworkers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale,” thereby meeting the de minimis standard. The Supreme Court disagreed. The Court found that showing “more than a de minimis” cost is not enough to prove undue hardship. Rather, a hardship is undue only when the burden is substantial. 

The Implications of Groff v. DeJoy for Employers 

While Groff still does not establish a hard-and-fast rule for demonstrating undue hardship, it arguably makes proving undue hardship more difficult than it used to be. The Court also clarified a few additional issues for employers in Groff. First, the Court held that a hardship that is attributable to employee animosity toward a particular religion (such as arguing that providing an accommodation would “decrease morale”) cannot be considered “undue.” Second, it requires employers to “reasonably accommodate” rather than “merely assess” the reasonableness of a particular accommodation. In other words, employers can no longer merely consider whether a requested accommodation is reasonable before denying it; in some cases, consideration of alternative accommodations may be required. 

Speak to a Richmond Employment Lawyer to Pursue or Defend a Religious Discrimination Claim 

Groff v. DeJoy is widely seen as a win for employees wishing to exercise their religion in the workplace, but it also likely will impose new burdens on employers when considering requests for religious accommodations. As such, both employers and employees should seek experienced counsel when navigating potential religious discrimination claims post-Groff. For more information, please contact a Richmond employment lawyer at Pierce / Jewett by calling 804-502-2320 or using our online contact form.