New Standard for Religious Accommodations in the Workplace

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 gives employees and job applicants protection from discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has responsibility to enforce this federal law. For many years, the Act has required that most employers reasonably accommodate their employees’ sincerely held religious, ethical, and moral beliefs and practices, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the business.

The key term here is “undue hardship.” In the past, based on the outcome of the 1977 court case Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, the court indicated that religious accommodation was not required if the accommodations required something more than a “de minimis” cost. Ever since, an accommodation that imposes more than a de minimis cost on the employer can be deemed an undue hardship when it comes to religious accommodations.

This changed earlier this year in the case of Groff v. DeJoy. The case involves Gerald Groff, an evangelical Christian who believed that he should devote Sundays to worship and rest, not work. He began working for the United States Postal Service (USPS) in 2012 as a rural carrier associate. At the time, he was not required to work on Sundays. However, this changed when the USPS agreed to make Amazon deliveries that day.

Groff transferred to another USPS location to avoid working Sundays, but Sunday deliveries began at that location soon after. Groff refused Sunday work but was “progressively disciplined.” He subsequently resigned.

Groff then sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, claiming that USPS could have accommodated his Sunday worship without undue hardship. The District Court granted summary judgment to USPS. The Third Circuit affirmed the decision, stating that the “de minimis” cost standard was met. Exempting Groff from working on Sunday was a burden to his co-workers, as it disrupted the workplace and workflow and diminished employee morale.

Groff continued to pursue the case, which was eventually heard before the Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor. According to a majority opinion authored by Justice Samuel Alito, forcing others to work overtime to make up the shift is not enough to show undue hardship. The majority opinion held that courts had improperly interpreted the ruling from the Hardison case.  The majority decision in Groff ruled that the USPS had to accommodate Groff’s religious belief because there was no evidence of undue hardship. A hardship, by definition, is “something hard to bear” or very burdensome, and this definition was not met in Groff’s case. Undue hardship is shown when a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business. All relevant factors must be considered, including the nature, size, and operating cost of the employer.

What Constitutes a Reasonable Religious Accommodation?

When an employer adjusts an employee’s working conditions or schedule so that the employee can attend church or engage in some other religious practice, this is considered a reasonable accommodation.

Accommodations for religious beliefs will vary based on what the employee is requesting but may include:

  • Flexible scheduling, such as working certain hours or having certain days off to attend worship services.
  • Voluntary shift substitutions or swaps.
  • Job reassignments or lateral transfers.
  • Modifications to grooming policy and/or dress code so that employees can wear religious dress.

Texas Labor Code Chapter 21 is in accord with Title VII and goes a step further. In Texas, retail employers are required to give employees their requested day off each week so that they can attend a worship service.

What Employers Need to Know

The Supreme Court’s decision in the Groff case eliminated a widely used interpretation from the Hardison case and outlined what the Court said was the proper standard for the undue hardship defense. The undue hardship defense should now be assessed by focusing on whether an accommodation imposes substantial costs on the business and not simply more than the de minimis costs.

In the future, religious accommodation requests will likely remain highly fact specific. In Groff’s case, other accommodations may have been available so that his employer could have accommodated his request not to work on Sundays. These included incentives and assessing administrative costs of coordinating with other nearby stations with more employees. Employers need to be mindful of religious accommodation requests and ensure they assess them fully. Once they receive these requests, they should open a dialog with employees about options. They should also analyze the potential costs of accommodations before making decisions.

Contact Our Frisco Employment Law Attorneys Today

As an employer, it’s essential to be compliant with federal law when it comes to making reasonable accommodation requests from employees. If you need help with any employment or business law matter, the Frisco employment lawyers at Simon | Paschal PLLC can help. To schedule a consultation, call (972) 893-9340 or contact us online.

Share the Post:

Related posts