On January 13, the U.S. Supreme Court accepted review of a case that may have significant repercussions for employers faced with religious accommodation requests. The case was brought by Gerald Groff, who sued the U.S. Postal Service in 2019, claiming that he had been unlawfully punished for not working on Sundays due to his Christian beliefs.
Under Title VII, employers are required to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs as long as it does not impose an “undue hardship” on the business. In the 1977 case Trans World Airlines Inc. v. Hardison, the Supreme Court issued a 7-2 opinion holding that “undue hardship” means anything that has more than a de minimus, or trivial, burden on the employer. The trial court applied this minimal standard to dispose of Groff’s claim at summary judgment and the Third Circuit later agreed. The Third Circuit explained that the plaintiff’s accommodation request “caused more than a de minimus cost on USPS because it actually imposed on his coworkers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale.”
By accepting review of Groff v. DeJoy, the Supreme Court seems poised to overturn longstanding precedent. In a previous dissent, Justice Neil Gorsuch expressly called for the Hardison standard to be reversed because its de minimus test does not appear in the statute. In line with its recent trajectory, the court may very well issue an opinion rejecting the standard and requiring employers to demonstrate a greater level of burden before denying a religious accommodation request.
If the Supreme Court adopts a more robust standard, employers can expect to see both an increase in religious accommodation requests and greater difficulty in declining accommodations. In addition to requests relating to work schedules that conflict with religious worship, employers could also expect to receive exemption requests for vaccine or masking policies, which have generated significant controversy throughout the pandemic. Employers evaluating religious accommodation requests now should exercise caution because the court’s opinion could even have retroactive effects.