The Supreme Court Clarifies the Appropriate Standard for Undue Hardship in Title VII Religious Accommodation Cases

By Leni Plimpton

Most employers know that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion in hiring and in the workplace. Under the law, an employer must reasonably accommodate “all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief,” unless the employer can demonstrate that an accommodation would cause undue hardship to the business.

Until now, the governing standard for an “undue hardship” in a religious accommodation claim hinged on whether the requested accommodated imposed more than a “de minimis” burden on the employer’s business. Lower courts had long interpreted Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977) as standing for the proposition that an employer need only show a de minimis burden in order to deny a request for religious accommodation.

In Groff v. DeJoy, issued in June,the Supreme Court unanimously rejected the de minimis burden standard that until now governed whether and when an employer can show undue hardship. The Court pointed out that in layman’s terms “de minimis” means something so “‘very small or trifling’ that [it is] not even worth noticing.” Groff v. DeJoy, 600 U.S. __ (2023). “Hardship,” on the other hand, is, the Court said, “at a minimum, ‘something hard to bear,’” which is, under any definition, “more severe than a mere burden.” The Court characterized its decision as a clarification of Hardison, which it said had been misinterpreted over the years. It explained that even though Hardison mentioned a “de minimis burden” standard, the case could not be “reduced to that one phrase.” 

The Court held that the correct question to determine whether there is an undue hardship is whether the burden of granting the accommodation would result in  “substantial increased costs.” Accordingly, all employers must now be aware that they must treat requests for religious accommodations differently. An employer can no longer point to any burden, however small, in order to show undue hardship and successfully reject an accommodation. Instead, employers faced with a request for accommodation must carefully analyze the burden the accommodation poses. If the burden is anything less than “substantial,” an employer will not be able to show undue hardship. Under Groff, employers evaluating an accommodation must carefully weigh the request, because the courts must now evaluate whether the burden was “substantial,” taking into account all relevant factors, including the practical impact of the requested accommodation and the “nature, size, and operating cost” of the employer.

If your business is faced with an employee needing a religious accommodation and you are unsure whether to accommodate the request, reach out to an experienced employment lawyer who can help you analyze the situation and ensure compliance with this new legal standard.

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Lenora Plimpton

Lenora Plimpton

Lenora (Leni) specializes in employment and commercial litigation. She has experience with a wide range of employment and labor matters, including claims of age, race, and sex discrimination; disability discrimination; EEOC and CCRD charges of discrimination; mediations; arbitrations; and unemployment insurance audits.

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