Separation of Church and Cubicle: Supreme Court Considers Increasing Burden on Employers

3 min


How far must employers go to accommodate their employees' sincerely held religious beliefs? Last month, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Groff v. DeJoy, a case that asks the Justices to answer this very question—and potentially alter employers' accommodation obligations in the process.

When Gerald Groff started working for the United State Postal Service ("USPS") in 2012, mail carriers did not work on Sundays. After the USPS entered into an agreement with Amazon to deliver the company's packages, mail carriers like Groff were required to work on Sundays. Groff, an evangelical Christian, observes the Sunday Sabbath and was therefore unwilling to work on Sundays. When Groff declined to work on Sundays, the USPS disciplined him. As a result, Groff resigned and sued the USPS under Title VII. He alleges that his employer, the USPS, failed to reasonably accommodate his religious beliefs.

Title VII provides that employers may not discriminate against their employees because of their race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Further, Title VII requires employers to "reasonably accommodate" an employee's religious practices, provided the accommodations can be made without "undue hardship" on the employer's business. The Supreme Court in Trans World Airlines v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977) interpreted "undue hardship" narrowly and permitted employers to avoid providing an accommodation whenever it would require the employer to bear more than a "de minimis" cost.

Oral Argument Before the Supreme Court

At oral argument, Groff urged the Court to overrule Hardison's "de minimis" test, arguing that it violates Title VII's promise that employees cannot be forced to choose between their faith and their job. Most notably, Groff argued that the Court should import its definition of "undue hardship" under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") into the Title VII context. The ADA also has "undue hardship" language, which the Court has interpreted to require employers to show a much more robust "significant difficulty or expense" before declining an accommodation.

The government asked the Court to clarify, but not overrule, Hardison's "de minimis" test. Specifically, the government conceded that "de minimis" is not an accurate interpretation of "undue hardship" but argued that the lower courts have consistently applied it to mean "substantial cost" and thus provided substantial protection for religious practices. Further, given that Hardison was decided nearly 50 years ago, the government cautioned the Court against disrupting decades of legal precedent and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidance that employers have come to depend upon.

Takeaways for Employers

With the Supreme Court likely to hand down a decision later this year, employers should begin considering how they may need to adjust their handling of employee requests for religious accommodations. Depending on the decision, employers, in consultation with counsel, may need to consider:

  • Providing new and updated training for employees charged with making decisions about accommodation requests;
  • Revising employee handbooks to reflect religious accommodation policies consistent with a new standard; and
  • Modifying internal procedures to ensure that the burden of granting religious accommodations is well documented.

Venable LLP will continue to monitor this critical case and provide updates as they arise. In the meantime, if your organization has any questions about handling religious accommodation requests, or complying with Title VII generally, please contact the authors of this article or any attorney in Venable's Labor and Employment Group.

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