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Supreme Court Religious Accommodation Undue Hardship Definition

Employment Lawyer

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to reflect on its definition of “undue hardship” concerning religious accommodation and whether an accommodation that burdens other employees can be considered a burden to the employer when analyzing undue hardship. The issue is before the High Court in Groff v. DeJoy, where oral argument is scheduled for April 18.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act requires employers to reasonably accommodate employees’ religious beliefs or values that directly conflict with their work unless doing so would create an “undue hardship” for the employer. As an experienced employment lawyer can explain, while the Act failed to provide a definition, the Supreme Court defined “undue hardship” in TWA v. Hardison (1977) as any accommodation that requires the employer to bear more than a “de minimis cost,” meaning any cost or disruption that cannot be deemed insignificant or negligible.

In Groff, the petitioner worked as a rural mail carrier for the United States Postal Service(“USPS”) and requested religious accommodation seeking exemption from Sunday shifts. USPS attempted to find other carriers to cover Groff’s shifts but struggled to do so. It denied his request, arguing that it would lead to undue hardship for the agency. Groff was repeatedly disciplined for missing his Sunday shifts and eventually resigned from the agency in 2019.

Groff brought a complaint against the USPS under Title VII, alleging disparate treatment and failure to accommodate. The District Court granted USPS’s motion for summary judgment on both counts. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit referred to the standard outlined in Hardison to determine whether Groff’s request for exemption from Sunday work created “more than a de minimis cost” for the agency. The Third Circuit concluded that Groff’s accommodation request would meet the “de minimis cost” standard for undue hardship since it would burden his coworkers, disrupt the workplace, diminish morale, and hamper USPS’s operations.

In his petition for Supreme Court review, Groff’s attorneys argue that defining “undue hardship” as anything more than a “de minimis cost” for an employer contradicts Title VII’s promise of protection from religious discrimination in the workplace. Groff instead requests that the Court adopt the Americans with Disabilities Act’s(“ADA”) definition of “undue hardship” as causing “significant difficulty or expense.”

The Supreme Court’s definition in Hardison has defined Title VII’s definition of undue hardship for nearly half a century. Its decision to review that definition can potentially redefine religious protections in the workplace. However, its decision-making process may be complicated due to many disputes regarding religious accommodation requests seeking exemption from COVID-19 vaccine mandates. We all just have to wait to see how it unfolds.

Thanks to our friends at Hoyer Law Group for their insight into the Undue Hardship issues.

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