Supreme Court Set to Consider Religious Accommodations

Employment Law

Could the U.S. Supreme Court tweak the standard for religious accommodation requests?

Possibly, as the justices recently granted certiorari in a case that involves an employee who refused to work on Sundays for religious reasons.

A Sunday Sabbath observer, Gerald Groff’s religious beliefs dictate that Sunday is meant for worship and rest. Groff, who worked for the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), informed his employer that he was unable to work on Sundays.

USPS contracted with Amazon to make package deliveries on Sundays, and Groff was included in the schedule. Groff’s manager offered to adjust Groff’s schedule to permit him to attend religious services on Sunday morning and report to work afterward, but Groff’s beliefs included a prohibition on all work on Sundays.

Later, Groff’s manager sought out other employees to cover his Sunday shifts; another postal worker agreed to take the shifts but was injured and then unable to work them.

As a result of his not working on Sundays, Groff faced progressive discipline. He eventually quit and filed suit alleging USPS violated Title VII because it failed to provide him with a religious accommodation.

Relying upon a standard established by the Supreme Court in 1977’s Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, USPS argued that allowing Groff to take all Sundays off would create an undue hardship on the employer because of the burden it would place on Groff’s coworkers.

A district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals, Third Circuit sided with the employer. Examples of undue hardship include negative impacts on the employer’s operations, the Third Circuit said, such as productivity or quality, personnel and overtime costs, increased workload on other employees, and reduced employee morale.

“Groff’s proposed accommodation of being exempted from Sunday work would cause an undue hardship,” the federal appellate panel wrote. “Exempting Groff from working on Sundays caused more than a de minimis cost on USPS because it actually imposed on his coworkers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale.”

Groff filed a petition for certiorari, and the Supreme Court agreed in January to hear the case.

The justices certified two questions:

“Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 generally prohibits an employer from discriminating against an individual ‘because of such individual’s … religion.’ The statute defines ‘religion’ to include ‘all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief, unless an employer demonstrates that he is unable to reasonably accommodate to an employee’s or prospective employee’s religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.’ In Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, this Court stated that an employer suffers an ‘undue hardship’ in accommodating an employee’s religious exercise whenever doing so would require the employer ‘to bear more than a de minimis cost.’

“The questions presented are:

1. Whether this Court should disapprove the more-than-de-minimis-cost test for refusing Title VII religious accommodations stated in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison.

2. Whether an employer may demonstrate ‘undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business’ under Title VII merely by showing that the requested accommodation burdens the employee’s co-workers rather than the business itself.”

Oral argument was set for April 18, with a decision likely in June, before the end of the Supreme Court’s term.

To read the documents in Groff v. DeJoy, click here.

To read the Third Circuit decision in the case, click here.

Why it matters: The case presents an important issue for employers, who should keep an eye on the upcoming oral argument before the Supreme Court and the decision issued by the justices.



pursuant to New York DR 2-101(f)

© 2024 Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP.

All rights reserved