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SCOTUS Changes Standard for Religious Accommodation

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that employers can only deny an employee's request for a religious accommodation under federal law if they can prove it would result in substantial increased costs for the business.

In a unanimous decision on June 29 in Groff v. DeJoy, the court emphasized that the hardship must be a substantial—rather than minimal—cost for an employer to deny an accommodation request. It sent the case back to lower courts for further review.

"A good deal of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's guidance in this area is sensible and will likely be unaffected by the court's clarifying decision," Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the opinion.

Nevertheless, "this is a very significant result, as this is the first time in more than four decades that the Supreme Court has addressed the issue of accommodation of religious beliefs in the workplace," said Joseph Beachboard, an attorney with Beachboard Consulting Group in Los Angeles. "Religious discrimination claims are one of the hottest growth areas in employment law today."

Read the opinion.

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The Court however opined, "A good deal of the EEOC's guidance in this area is sensible and will, in all likelihood, be unaffected by the Court's clarifying decision." According to the Court, "Courts must apply the test to take into account all relevant factors in the case at hand, including the particular accommodations at issue and their practical impact in light of the nature, size, and operating cost of an employer."
U.S. Supreme Court Changes Standard in Religious Accommodation Case
Jackson Lewis | Jun 2023

The Court also addressed directly what it called "several recurring issues." One such issue is the extent to which impact on coworkers can be an undue hardship.  The Court held that, "Impacts on coworkers are relevant only to the extent those impacts go on to affect the conduct of the business."  The Court held that a court "must analyze whether that further logical step is shown" – that is, not only that coworkers are impacted, but that the impact actually affects the conduct of the business.  The Court grounded this holding in Title VII's language, which requires an assessment of a possible accommodation's effect on "the conduct of the employer's business." §2000e(j).
A Unanimous Supreme Court Rules on Undue Hardship in Religious Accommodation: De Minimis Is Out, "Substantial Increased Costs" Is In
Seyfarth | Jun 2023

So what does "undue hardship" mean under Title VII?  Rather than adopting the standard used for ADA cases outright, the court noted that it is to be case specific while still leaving the door open to its particulars. "We think it is enough to say that an employer must show that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business."
U.S. Supreme Court Revises Long-Standing Religious Accommodations Test
Shipman | Jun 2023

Employers Need to Prepare for New Religious Accommodation Requests
Butler Snow | Jul 2023

Additional Resources

Policy Religious Accommodation
Policy Religious Holiday (Absences)
Policy Floating Holidays
Form Request for Religious Accommodation
SHRM Samples and Tools

Must employers allow employees to have religious holidays off?
An employee states that his religious beliefs preclude his ability to work on Saturdays. Do we have to accommodate his schedule?
Can we require documentation from a religious authority to verify an employee's request for religious accommodation?

Religious Discrimination

Adjustment of Work Schedules for Religious Observances
OPM Fact Sheet

Workplace Accommodations for the Jewish High Holidays
Anti-Defamation League

Muslim Holidays: Fact Sheet
Congressional Research Service | Apr 2023

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