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Discrimination Based on Religion: The Accommodation Standard Redefined

If you have fifteen or more employees, whether you are a public or private employer, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 probably applies to you.  Title VII prohibits many forms of discrimination including discrimination on the basis of religion. Under Title VII, it is unlawful for “employers to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s religion.”   

The EEOC, using its regulatory authority, interpreted discrimination on the basis of an individual’s religion “to mean that employers were sometimes required to accommodate the reasonable religious needs of employees.”  Accommodations were reasonable if they “would not work an undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.”  Since the Supreme Court’s 1977 TWA v. Hardison decision, lower courts have relied on a ‘de minimis’ standard to determine what constitutes undue hardship.  However, in June of 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in Groff v. DeJoy, in which the Court announced lower courts have it wrong.  Instead, the Supreme Court said Hardison is better understood “to mean that ‘undue hardship’ is shown when a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business.” 

Groff is an Evangelical Christian previously employed by the United States Postal Service (USPS).  “When he took the position, it generally did not involve Sunday work.”  That changed within a few years when the USPS “entered into an agreement with Amazon to begin facilitating Sunday deliveries.”  Groff refused to work Sundays because he believes, for religious reasons, “that Sunday should be devoted to worship and rest, not secular labor and the transportation of worldly goods.”  Groff received progressive discipline for failing to work on Sundays and, in January 2019, he resigned.  “A few months later, Groff sued under Title VII, asserting that USPS could have accommodated his Sunday Sabbath practice without undue hardship on the conduct of USPS’s business.”   

Because the Supreme Court determined that the original undue hardship determination made at the trial court level used the incorrect de minimis standard, the Supreme Court remanded the case for further proceedings applying the correct standard.  Specifically, the Court was concerned the reliance on the wrong standard “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.”  The Supreme Court explained “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.’”  Further, reasonably accommodating an employee’s practice of religion requires more than assessing “the reasonableness of a particular possible accommodation or accommodations.”  “Faced with an accommodation request like Groff’s, it would not be enough for an employer to conclude that forcing other employees to work overtime would constitute an undue hardship.”  “Consideration of other options, such as voluntary shift swapping, would also be necessary.” 

In other words, employers should use an interactive process when evaluating an employee’s request for accommodation based on the employee’s sincerely held religious belief.  

This summary is not intended to provide an exhaustive explanation of the laws regarding religious discrimination prohibition or legal advice.  Please contact the attorneys at Brackett & Ellis if you need help navigating the impact of an employee’s sincerely held religious belief.  We can be reached at (817) 338 – 1700.   

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