Workplace Religious Accommodations



During this time of observance of religious holidays, it is important for employers to note that a U.S. Supreme Court case handed down this year will compel employers to prove that accommodating an employee’s religious beliefs will inflict substantial costs before denying such accommodations.  Groff v. DeJoy, 143 S.Ct. 2279 (June 29, 2023).

The Court emphasized that any undue hardship that an employer may claim must be a substantial, rather than minimal, cost for an employer to deny an accommodation request from an employee.

Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion for a unanimous court stated, “A good deal of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s guidance in this area is sensible and will likely be unaffected by the court’s clarifying decision.”

Now, the law. 

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers must reasonably accommodate all aspects of an employee’s religious observance or practice that can be accommodated without creating an undue hardship for the business.

In this case, Gerald Groff, a former postal worker, sued the U.S. Postal Service, (USPS), for failing to accommodate he religious practice.  Groff is an evangelical Christian who observes a Sunday Sabbath.  That means he does not work on that day.  USPS does not deliver mail on Sundays, but it does have a contract with Amazon to deliver packages, even on Sundays.  USPS sought co-workers to voluntarily cover Groff’s Sunday shifts and it imposed progressive discipline for his absences.  Eventually, Groff resigned.

The district court agreed with USPS, holding that exempting Groff from Sunday deliveries caused the employer undue hardship because it negatively impacted Groff’s co-workers who had to substitute for him and may also require the USPS to violate its union contract.  The Third U.S. Court of Appeals agreed.

However, the Supreme Court reversed.  “Faced with an accommodation request like Groff’s, an employer must do more than conclude that forcing other employees to work overtime would constitute undue hardship.  Consideration of other options would also be necessary,” Alito wrote.

What is the practical effect of this ruling?  It sets a higher bar and make it extremely difficult for an employer, especially a large employer which could more easily bear the costs, to deny a religious accommodation.  This case shows that a mere inconvenience would not constitute an “undue hardship.” 

A Sabbath accommodation could apply to a number of religious faiths.  For example, Seventh-day Adventists, Orthodox Jews and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are generally not permitted to work on the day they observe the Sabbath.

Examples of religious accommodations include schedule changes, voluntary shift substitutions, job reassignments, modifying the company’s dress code or grooming policy, or designating a private location in the workplace where a religious observance can occur.  Using paid vacation or unpaid leave could be an accommodation for observing the Sabbath.

Happy Holidays!

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