Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin, requires employers with 15 or more employees to accommodate the sincerely held religious beliefs and practices of applicants and employees unless doing so would impose an “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” 42 U.S.C. §2000e(j). On Thursday, June 29, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion that clarified what “undue hardship” means in the Title VII religious accommodation context, raising the bar that employers must meet to lawfully deny religious accommodations.
Prior to the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Groff v. DeJoy, 600 U.S. --- (2023), many courts held that an employer can prove undue hardship if the accommodation at issue would require the employer to bear more than a de minimis cost. In Groff, the Supreme Court rejected this interpretation of Title VII’s religious accommodation requirement, holding that “‘undue hardship’ is shown when a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business.” The Court further held, “courts must apply the test in a manner that takes into account all relevant factors in the case at hand, including the particular accommodations at issue and their practical impact in light of the nature, ‘size and operating cost of [an] employer.’”
The Court opined that “a good deal of the EEOC’s guidance in this area is sensible and will, in all likelihood, be unaffected by our decision today.” The Court’s opinion also states, however, that the Court was not ratifying the entire body of the EEOC’s interpretation of Title VII’s religious accommodation requirement, which “has not had the benefit of the clarification” adopted in Groff.
The Court also noted that some, but not all, of an accommodation’s impact on co-workers will be relevant to the undue hardship analysis. “[O]nly ‘co-worker impacts’ that go on to ‘affec[t] the conduct of the business” will be relevant. The Court stated, “an accommodation’s effect on co-workers may have ramifications for the conduct of the employer’s business, but a court cannot stop its analysis without examining whether that further logical step is shown in a particular case.” Further, when faced with an accommodation request to not be scheduled for work on a day the employee reserves for worship, “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.” According to the Court, common sense should guide whether a hardship is substantial in the context of the employer’s business.
It is anticipated that the EEOC will update its Title VII guidance to reflect the Supreme Court’s clarification of the undue hardship standard. In the meantime, employers must undertake a more detailed analysis when considering whether to grant employees’ requests for a religious accommodation.