Connect with us


SCOTUS overturns Title VII precedent, lowering bar for religious accommodations



Employers may not demonstrate that a proposed accommodation of an employee’s sincerely held religious belief or practice constitutes an undue hardship under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act solely because doing so would pose “more than a de minimis cost,” the U.S. Supreme Court held in a Thursday decision overturning more than 40 years of legal precedent.

Justice Samuel Alito authored the unanimous opinion in Groff v. DeJoy, a case involving a former U.S. Postal Service employee who was denied his request not to work on Sundays in order to observe the Sabbath.

Relying on SCOTUS’ precedent set in the 1977 decision Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of USPS, holding that the employee’s requested accommodation would have imposed upon his co-workers, disrupted the workplace and workflow and diminished employee morale.

But the high court reversed, with Alito writing that this reading of Hardison’s more-than-a-de-minimis language is “a mistake,” and that, instead, the court understands that “undue hardship” is shown in the religious discrimination context “when a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business.”

Hardison cannot be reduced to that one phrase,” Alito said of the 1977 ruling’s more-than-de-minimis-cost language. “In describing an employer’s ‘undue hardship’ defense, Hardison referred repeatedly to ‘substantial’ burdens, and that formulation better explains the decision.”

Courts, Alito added, must determine whether an accommodation would pose an undue hardship by taking into account the practical impact of the accommodation in light of an employer’s nature, size and operating cost.

The high court also refused to take further steps advocated by the employee and the federal government. The former asked SCOTUS to borrow the Americans with Disabilities Act’s “significant difficulty or expense” definition of undue hardship, while the latter asked the court to approve of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Title VII guidance for religious accommodations.

“Both of these suggestions go too far,” Alito said. “We have no reservations in saying that a good deal of the EEOC’s guidance in this area is sensible and will, in all likelihood, be unaffected by our clarifying decision today. […] But it would not be prudent to ratify in toto a body of EEOC interpretation that has not had the benefit of the clarification we adopt today.”

Religious groups — some of whom filed amicus briefs earlier this year in support of the employee in Groff — praised Thursday’s decision.

“Today’s Supreme Court ruling is an important victory for all people of faith, including American Muslims,” Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said in a statement. “For too long, American Muslims have been denied the right to perform daily prayers at work, wear hijab or kufi or attend prayers on Fridays. Today marks a new era.”

The decision in Groff presents a higher bar for employers to meet in order to deny an accommodation request for religious reasons, Tracey Diamond, partner at Troutman Pepper, said in an email to HR Dive. The court made several other clarifications, she added, including that employers must reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious practice, “not merely say yes or no to a particular possible accommodation.”

Read the full article here