The U.S. Supreme Court Clarifies the Standard for Denying Employee Requests for Religious Accommodations

On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court “clarified” the standard for denying employee requests for religious accommodations. Under Groff v. DeJoy, an employer may deny an employee’s request to accommodate his religious beliefs or practices if the denial is supported by evidence that granting an accommodation “would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business,” taking 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 [the] employer.” Prior to Groff, it was commonly understood by both employers and courts that the applicable test was whether the accommodation would result in “more than a de minimis cost” to the employer. Without overturning its established precedent, the Court explained that everyone has simply been misinterpreting that precedent for the past forty-six years.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals because of their religion. In 1972, the Act was expanded to require employers to accommodate “all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief,” except to the extent that doing so would impose an “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” What constitutes an “undue hardship” was the issue in Groff. The case arose when a rural postal worker was required to start working on Sundays. Because working on his Sabbath violated his religious beliefs, Groff requested an accommodation that would relieve him of Sunday work. Lower courts had determined that the Postal Service was justified in denying the request, because it imposed upon other workers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and would result in decreased morale.

 Employee requests for religious accommodations in the workplace are varied and can include requests such as dress code exceptions to permit religious garb, adjustments to work schedules to avoid shifts on the Sabbath, and altered break times to allow for workday prayer and fasts. Prior to yesterday’s decision, most federal courts (including those within Michigan) permitted employers to deny requests for religious accommodation if granting the request would result in a “more than de minimis [i.e., “very small or trifling”] cost.” This long-standing rule was based on a statement from a 1977 case, Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison. Reexamining what constitutes an “undue hardship,” the Groff Court noted that the ‘more than de minimis’ was taken out of context, and that lower courts misinterpreted Hardison by improperly “latch[ing] on to ‘de minimis’ as the governing standard.” Labeling its decision as a “clarification,” the Court ruled that “‘undue hardship’ is shown when a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business.”

 The Court went on to explain that the potential impact of an accommodation on coworkers can be taken into account to the extent there are “ramifications for the conduct of the employer’s business.” Coworker animosity to a particular religion, to religion in general, or to the notion of accommodating religious practices, however, should not be part of the employer’s analysis.

 Nemeth Bonnette Brouwer PC will continue to monitor developments in this area. Employers with questions, or that are responding to requests for religious accommodations, are best advised to contact our attorneys for advice on how this new standard may apply.

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