July 27, 2023

U.S. Supreme Court Re-examines Standard for Religious Accommodation

On Thursday, June 29, 2023, the United States Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision in the matter of Groff v. Dejoy, holding that employers must demonstrate more than a “de minimis hardship” in their address of religious accommodation in the workplace.  The Court specifically revisited the “standard” set by its 1977 decision in Hardison v. Trans World Airlines, which provided, “that requiring an employer ‘to bear more than a de minimis cost’ to provide a religious accommodation is an undue hard­ship.”  Now, in Groff, the Court has revised the burden holding that “courts should resolve whether a hardship would be substantial in the context of an employer’s business in the commonsense manner that it would use in applying any such test.”  In short, the Supreme Court has re-calibrated the de minimis standard and heightened the burden on employers to establish that reasonable accommodation based on religion, constitutes a definable undue hardship on the cost and operation of their business.

The factual background of the case is critical to future analysis of the impact and application of this decision.  A Pennsylvania resident, Groff, started employment with the United States Postal Service (USPS), in 2012, as a rural carrier associate.  His position was crafted to provide coverage for absent career employees.  Weekend and holiday work was anticipated.  Rural carrier associates were advised upon hire that they needed to be flexible when filling schedule vacancies.  In 2013, USPS contracted with Amazon to deliver packages on Sundays.  This sparked the employment issue for Groff as his Christian religious beliefs preclude him from working on Sundays.

According to the U.S. Supreme Court Decision, some accommodations were proposed by the USPS.  One accommodation offered was to adjust Groff’s schedule to allow him to come to work after attending religious services.  Another accommodation proposed he should see if other workers could pick up his shifts.  The USPS even suggested Groff choose a different day to observe the Sabbath.  Groff transferred to another position with an office that did not deliver on Sundays notwithstanding the contract with Amazon.  Unfortunately, demand finally caught up to that station, requiring Groff to be scheduled for deliveries on Sunday.  Groff, unwilling to work Sundays, was disciplined under USPS prevailing policy.

In 2019, Groff resigned his position stating, “he had been unable to find an accommodating employment atmosphere with the USPS that would honor his religious beliefs.”  Groff argued that for him it was not simply a matter of attending church, “It’s about obeying the Lord and putting the entire day aside and glorify Him.”

The lower court relied on Hardison holding that the “de minimis standard” was met.  Specifically, the Third Circuit found, that exempting Groff from Sunday work “had imposed on his coworkers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale.”

Through its Decision in Groff, the Supreme Court disagreed with the Third Circuit.  The Court confirmed that Title VII makes it unlawful for employers “to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individ­ual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges [of] employment, because of such individual’s religion.”  The Court, however, examined the applicable meaning of “undue hardship.”  They stated that “hardship” means “something hard to bear and something more severe than a mere burden.”  They went on to find that “undue” means the burden must be “excessive or unjustifiable.”  They concluded that this interpretation of undue hardship was actually consistent with the meaning advanced by Hardison.  They unanimously found, “Courts must apply the test to take 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.”  Further, the Court stated, that a Title VII requires an assessment of a possible accommo­dation’s effect on “the conduct of the employer’s business.”

In Groff, the Supreme Court confirmed, “Title VII requires that an employer “reasonably accommo­date” an employee’s practice of religion, not merely that it assess the reasonableness of a particular possible accommodation or accommoda­tions.”  The Court remanded the case back to the lower courts to determine whether the steps taken by the U.S. Postal Service sufficiently addressed the elevated standard.

The Decision is being heralded by many religious groups as a tremendous victory for religious rights in the workplace.  Clearly. the Court’s determination marks a re-justification of the term “undue hardship” and an arguable advancement of the previously held burden of religious accommodation for employers. 

However, the scope of true impact of the Decision demands tempered review.  In its decision, the Supreme Court did not overturn the precedent set in Hardison; it redefined its application.  The clarification of the term “undue hardship” heightened the immediate burden for employers to examine and accommodate requests for religious accommodation.  It did not leave employers without recourse for review.  Employers must take greater care in the evaluation and documentation of their legitimate business needs and costs.  Requests for religious accommodations must be balanced against these needs and costs.  Potential accommodations must be weighed against the employee’s religious observance and the actual cost to the business; financial and contextual.  Employers should work with counsel to address requests for religious accommodation and apply the reasoning and process clarified by the Supreme Court decision in Groff v. Dejoy.

If you have any questions or need assistance with the development of a business strategy, please feel free to contact James Devine, Esq. at jfdevine@c-wlaw.com or 1-888-488-2638.


The information in this article is provided for general informational purposes only and may not reflect the current law in your jurisdiction.  By reading this article, you understand that there is no attorney-client relationship between you and Cipriani & Werner, P.C., or any of our attorneys.  No information contained in this article should be construed as legal advice from Cipriani & Werner, P.C. or the individual authors.