U.S. Supreme Court Updates Federal Religious Accommodation Test

U.S. Supreme Court Updates Federal Religious Accommodation Test

On June 29, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously revised Title VII’s religious accommodation and “undue hardship” analysis — the first decision to address the federal religious accommodation test in decades (Groff v. Dejoy, No. 22–174, (U.S. June 29, 2023)).

Generally, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for the religious needs of employees unless doing so would create an “undue hardship.” In this case, the Court clarified that undue hardship means the accommodation would result in “substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.”

Groff was a carrier for the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). Due to his religious beliefs, he refused to work on Sundays. The USPS offered to find employees to swap shifts with him, but on numerous occasions, no coworker would swap, and Groff did not work. The USPS subsequently fired him.

Groff sued the USPS under Title VII, claiming the USPS failed to reasonably accommodate his religion because the shift swaps did not fully eliminate the conflict. The district court ruled for the USPS, finding that the requested accommodation would be an “undue hardship,” and the Third Circuit agreed, relying on prior precedent, under which employers could show an undue hardship if the accommodation resulted in something more than a minimal expense to the business.

The Court unanimously reversed the Third Circuit, holding 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. Courts must apply the test in a manner that considers all relevant factors in the case — including the particular accommodations at issue and their practical impact in light of the nature, size and operating cost of the employer.

While the Court didn’t apply this new test to Groff’s circumstances, instead sending the case back to the lower courts to decide, it did state that a prospective accommodation’s impact on coworkers is relevant only to the extent that impact goes on to affect the conduct of the business. In other words, employers have to make a logical connection between the impact an accommodation has on its employees (e.g., covering someone’s shifts, working overtime) and how that affects the conduct of the business (e.g., productivity, morale, workplace safety, etc.). The Court also clarified that hardship, in the form of hostility to a religious belief, practice or accommodation, is not “undue,” i.e., it cannot provide a defense.

While a significant development under Title VII, this case doesn’t change the applicable legal standard under California law. The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for religion unless it would impose an undue hardship, which the FEHA defines as “an action requiring significant difficulty or expense,” when considering several enumerated factors.

With the Supreme Court using similar language in this decision, the federal and state law undue hardship standards are much closer now — though it’s important to remember that these are two different laws, and it’s unclear the extent to which these standards might match up or differ depending on the circumstances. California employers should consult with their legal counsel on the potential impact of this case on their policies and potential defenses under federal and state law.  

Multi-state employers should also review their religious accommodation policies in light of the new case and consult with their legal counsel to determine if any changes are necessary.

James W. Ward, Employment Law Subject Matter Expert/Legal Writer and Editor

CalChamber members can use the Religious Accommodation Request form on HRCalifornia. Not a member? Learn how to power your business with a CalChamber membership.

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