On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Groff v. DeJoy, a case widely expected to reset the standard courts apply to employers’ obligation to provide religious accommodations to employees under Title VII. The case involves a suit brought by a U.S. Postal Service worker who requested that he not work Sundays for religious reasons. The employer denied this request based on the burden exempting him from Sunday work would place on his co-workers.
The issue before the Supreme Court involves a 1977 decision that allows employers to deny religious accommodations if they impose more than a de minimus burden on the company. De minimus generally means more than trivial in nature. The plaintiff argued that this standard is too low and ignores the plain intent of Title VII. Justices on both sides of the ideological spectrum appeared sympathetic to this argument. But they struggled over where the line should be drawn in terms of considering an accommodation to be an undue hardship, especially where co-workers would have to bear the effects of accommodating the employee’s religious practices.
During the arguments, several justices suggested that the 1977 decision is valid, but that it has been misinterpreted by lower courts applying the de minimus standard separate from other language in that decision calling for demonstration of a substantial cost or burden. There appears to be a clear majority of justices prepared to adjust or clarify employers’ obligations to grant religious accommodations. Regardless of where this line is drawn, it is likely that employers will have to pay significantly more attention to religious accommodation requests. While individual accommodation decisions will continue to be made on a case-by-case basis, documentation of the employer’s review of the impact of such requests will be crucial to defending potential discrimination claims.
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