Religious accommodations on the workplace under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Jul 2023
José Martínez-Rivera

Among other unlawful practices, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 proscribe employers from discriminating against an employee for practicing their religion unless it imposes an “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” 42 USC sec. 2000e (j). Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 US 63 (1977), the Courts viewed “undue hardship” as a de minimis standard of effort or cost to the business. In other words, employers did not have to provide accommodation if doing so requires an employer to bear more than a de minimis cost for that religious accommodation. On June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court issued an Opinion in Groff v. DeJoy, No. 22-174, and clarified that the de minimis standard is not appropriate.

On Groff, the Supreme Court emphasized that the “undue hardship” disposition was more exacting and fact-specific: “undue hardship” is shown “when a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business.” Id., at pages 15-16. Under this standard, “an employer could not escape liability simply by showing that an accommodation would impose some sort of additional costs. Those costs would have to rise to the level of hardship, and adding the modifier “undue” means that the requisite burden, privation, or adversity must rise to an “excessive” or “unjustifiable” level.” Id., at page 16. Particularly, “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.” Id., at page 18. When applying this test Courts must 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.” Id., at page 18. Also, the Supreme Court underlined that “[a]n employer who fails to provide an accommodation has a defense only if the hardship is “undue,” and a hardship that is attributable to employee animosity to a particular religion, to religion in general, or to the very notion of accommodating religious practice cannot be considered “undue”. Id., at page 20.

Hardison was not overruled, but in Groff the Supreme Court clarified how Courts should examine and apply the “undue hardship” standard. It is context-specific and has more bite than a de minimis rule.

Should you have any questions about this Supreme Court’s decision and the implications in your business, please contact our Labor and Employment Practice Team.