A recent Supreme Court ruling will lessen the burden that an employee must show to receive religious accommodations from an employer. In Groff v. DeJoy, the court unanimously held that an employer may deny an employee's request for a religious accommodation only if the employer can show that it would result in a substantial increased cost for the business. The case sets a higher bar for employers to deny accommodation requests and may lead to increased religious discrimination claims.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects employees from religious discrimination in the workplace and requires employers to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs. An employer need not provide a religious accommodation if it can show that the accommodation would impose an “undue hardship” to the employer's business. Until the Court’s decision in Groff, an employer could show an undue hardship if the accommodation required more than a “de minimis” (small or minimal) cost. This long-held standard, established by the Court in 1977 in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, no longer applies. The Groff decision rejected the "de minimis" standard, clarifying that "substantial increased cost" is the appropriate standard.
The ruling serves as a significant “clarification” to the Court’s prior Title VII interpretation. Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the unanimous decision, emphasized that the phrase "undue" should mean that the burden or adversity must rise to an excessive or unjustifiable level, a far cry from the "de minimis" standard previously used. The Court stressed that the cost analysis will look different from one employer to the next, taking into consideration the size and resources of the specific business.
The impact of this decision will be felt by employers across the nation. As it stands now, determining what constitutes a "substantial increased cost" is undefined. This is a fact-sensitive question that will inevitably be answered over time through lower court decisions. It is safe to say that this decision imposes a greater obligation on employers to assess the impact of religious accommodation requests and to only deny those requests where significant costs will be incurred. Employers should take steps to tighten their accommodation process. Employers should carefully review their practices for assessing religious accommodation requests from employees and provide updated training to those who make accommodation decisions.
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