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US Supreme Court provides guidance on how employers evaluate religious accommodation requests

August 7, 2023

The U.S. Supreme Court provided new guidance on how employers evaluate requests for religious accommodations, when the court returned its decision in Groff v. Dejoy, 600 U.S. ___ (2023) on June 29, 2023.

Prior to bringing litigation, plaintiff Gerald Groff was employed by the United States Postal Service (USPS) in a mail delivery position. After being in this role for some time, his responsibilities changed, and he was asked to perform his duties on Sundays — a violation of his Evangelical Christian beliefs as it relates to working on the Sabbath. Groff transferred his position to a more rural USPS location where Sunday deliveries were not required, but in short order, he was again asked to perform duties on Sundays after a change in business expectations. After a period of progressive discipline, Groff ultimately chose to resign, before he could be terminated for missing work.

The Court, in a unanimous decision, decided that an employer may only lawfully deny a religious accommodation when it can demonstrate the accommodation would result in “substantial increased costs” related to the conduct of the business. Prior to the Groff decision, and arguably incorrectly, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and many courts had a “more than de minimis” standard as the burden of an employee’s religious accommodation on their employer. This lower standard was heavily employer friendly and likely resulted in many requested accommodations being denied by lower courts. In Groff, the Court relied heavily on statutory construction in reexamining this standard, but the Court was specific  that this standard was a clarification and not a change from its holding when it last reviewed this matter in 1972.

Moving forward, it will be imperative on employers to undergo a “fact-specific inquiry” into the religious request of an employee, in direct comparison to what the employer will need to change to facilitate an accommodation. This includes the accommodation(s) and its direct impact on the business as well as the size and operating cost of the business. These considerations may be made more difficult when attempting to find comparators considering the nuisances of any employee’s religious beliefs.

Where employers may have grown accustomed to more universal and one-size-fits-most approaches, moving forward it will be paramount for every religious request to be considered against the substantial increased costs for implementation. Until the case law reflecting this change can catch up in the labor and employment law landscape, it will be prudent for employers to reach out to the legal counsel to fully flesh out these decisions while the case law catches up.

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