In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court recently clarified the circumstances under which an employer may deny a request for a religious accommodation under Title VII.  Specifically, in Groff v. DeJoy, the Court held that in order to justify denying a request, an employer must now demonstrate that granting a religious accommodation would result in “substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.”  Prior to the Groff decision, employers could deny a religious accommodation request when it would simply result in “more than a de minimis cost” to an employer, a standard set forth in 1977 by the Supreme Court in Trans World Airlines v. Hardison.

In Groff, the petitioner, Mr. Groff, was a Postal Service employee whose religious beliefs prevented him from working on Sundays.  The Postal Service initially accommodated Groff by re-distributing his Sunday shifts to other employees, but eventually began to progressively discipline Groff for failing to work on Sundays.  Groff ultimately resigned and sued the Postal Service under Title VII, alleging that they could have accommodated his religious beliefs without an undue hardship.  Both the district court and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals applied the previously-applicable “de minimis cost” standard, and found in favor of the Postal Service.

In reversing, the Supreme Court did not go so far as to overturn the Hardison decision, which has been in effect for almost 50 years.  Instead, the Court found that the lower courts misinterpreted the Hardison decision by focusing on the “de minimis cost” language when, in actuality, the Hardison court repeatedly referred to “substantial burdens,” “substantial additional costs,” and “substantial expenditures” when describing what “undue hardship” means for an employer.  Based on a more detailed analysis of the Hardison case and the “ordinary meaning” of the term “undue hardship,” the Court clarified that under Title VII, when denying an accommodation request, an employer must demonstrate that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in “substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.”  After clarifying the standard, the Court remanded the case back to the lower courts for further review.

In light of the Groff decision, and while awaiting further guidance from the courts on the revised standard, employers should update their current process as it relates to evaluating religious accommodation requests and ensure that when denying an accommodation request, the revised “substantial cost” standard can be met.

If you have any questions about the Groff decision and how it impacts a company’s review of religious accommodation requests, or if you need assistance with updating your policies and procedures, please contact a member of the McNees Labor & Employment Group.