Supreme Court Makes it Easier to Receive Accommodations for Religious Beliefs

Evangelical christian postal worker wins in Supreme CourtLast month, the United States Supreme Court made it easier for employees to prove a claim that their employer failed to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Gerald Groff worked for the United States Postal Service (“USPS”). Mr. Groff is an Evangelical Christian whose religious belief is that Sunday should be a day for worship and rest, rather than for work or transporting worldly goods.

Initially, Mr. Groff’s job as a Rural Carrier Associate generally did not require him to work on Sundays.  However, in 2013, after USPS entered into an agreement with Amazon, it began requiring employees to make Sunday deliveries. Accordingly, Mr. Groff requested a transfer to another location that did not make deliveries on Sundays.

Mr. Groff worked at his new location, Holtwood, Pennsylvania, without any issues until March 2017, when it began requiring him to make Sunday deliveries. At that point, Mr. Groff did not work on Sundays, which caused other employees to have to cover for him, and USPS began disciplining him for not working on Sundays.  Ultimately, in January 2019, Mr. Groff resigned.

Mr. Groff filed a lawsuit, alleging USPS violated Title VII.  Title VII is a federal employment law.  Among other things, it requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employee’s religious practices unless doing so would impose an “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.”

The District Court dismissed Mr. Groff’s claim, and the Third Circuit Court of appeals affirmed the dismissal on the basis that requiring an employer “to bear more than a de minimis cost’ to provide a religious accommodation is an undue hardship.”

But, in Groff v. DeJoy, the Supreme Court reversed the Third Circuit’s ruling, concluding that “more than a de minimis cost” is not enough to establish that an accommodation for a religious belief would impose an undue hardship on the employer.  Rather, the Court held that an employer has to show the accommodation would impose a “substantial” burden on its business.

The Supreme Court made it clear that the impact of an accommodation on other employees can be considered in determining whether an accommodation has a substantial burden, but only to the extent it impacts the employer’s business. For instance, an employer cannot consider the fact that the employee’s coworker does not like religious practice or expression in the workplace, or does not like the fact that an employee is being accommodated.  Likewise, the employer cannot rely on its own animosity toward a particular religion, religion in general, or the idea of accommodating religious practices.

The Supreme Court also made it clear that a Court must analyze whether it is possible to reasonably accommodate the employee’s religious practice, rather than only assessing whether the particular accommodation the employee requested is reasonable.  In other words, if the accommodation the employee requested would impose an undue hardship, the employer still has to determine whether there is another accommodation that would not impose an undue hardship.  Thus, for example, even if requiring other employees to work overtime to allow Mr. Groff not to work on Sunday’s would have imposed an undue hardship on USPS, it still had to consider whether other potential ways to accommodate him, such as allowing him to voluntary swap shifts with his coworkers, would have imposed an undue hardship.

Accordingly, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower courts to determine whether there was a reasonable accommodation for Mr. Groff’s religious practices that would not have imposed an undue hardship on USPS.

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