Supreme Court Heightens Standard in Religious Accommodation Test

In a new ruling, a unanimous Supreme Court clarified the standard employers must use when considering an employee’s religious accommodation request and the burden it would impose on the business. Going forward, employers must provide an accommodation for an employee’s religious practice unless doing so would cause “substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.”


The case before the court involved a Christian former United States Postal Service worker, Gerald Groff (“Groff”), who objected to delivering packages for Amazon on Sundays and requested an accommodation allowing him to avoid working that day on religious grounds. USPS refused to exempt Groff from Sunday deliveries because doing so would be an imposition on Groff’s coworkers, disrupt the workplace and workflow, and diminish the morale of other employees. Groff sued USPS under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – which requires accommodation of religious practices that do not impose an “undue hardship” on an employer – arguing that USPS had failed to accommodate his religious practices, and that exempting him from Sunday deliveries did not impose an “undue burden” on USPS.  The lower courts sided with USPS, finding that Groff’s requested accommodation imposed “more than a de minimis” burden on USPS; and was therefore not required.


The Supreme Court found that lower courts had misinterpreted its 1977 decision in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison; which had been interpreted to mean that any religious accommodation that imposed even a minimal burden on an employer was an “undue hardship” not required by Title VII. Instead, the Court held that an “undue hardship” under Title VII occurs where the accommodation creates “substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.”


It is important to note that the Court’s “undue hardship” analysis for Title VII religious accommodations is different than the “undue burden” standard employers may be familiar with under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Employers should also be cautious of looking to the EEOC’s current guidance on religious accommodations.  While the Court found that its new standard “may prompt little, if any, change in the [EEOC]’s guidance” around workplace accommodations, it expressly declined to adopt the EEOC’s current guidance as the standard for determining when a religious accommodation creates an “undue hardship.” It is likely the EEOC will issue revised guidance based on the Court’s decision.


Ultimately, future court decisions will provide guidance on what constitutes an “undue hardship,” but the Court’s opinion clarified one issue every employer should take note of. The Court found that impositions on coworkers alone are not an “undue hardship.” Only those impositions that also “affect the conduct of the business” qualify as an “undue hardship” that would justify denying an accommodation. This is a significant change that would likely have changed the result in numerous religious accommodations cases in the past.


While this case involved a requested accommodation for days off work, it also impacts other situations where religion and workplace rules may conflict, such as religious dress or breaks for religious observance. Employers should review their current policies and practices when handling religious accommodations and consult experienced employment counsel to determine appropriate revisions.



The St. Louis employment attorneys at McMahon Berger have been representing employers across the country in labor and employment matters for over sixty years and are available to discuss these issues and others. As always, the foregoing is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice regarding any particular situation as every situation must be evaluated on its own facts. The choice of a lawyer is an important decision and should not be based solely on advertisements.