Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits religious discrimination in employment, encompassing actions like refusal to hire, termination, or unequal treatment based on an employee's religion. Consequently, employers throughout the United States have a responsibility to make an effort to accommodate their employees' religious needs at work.
In a ruling favorable to employers, the United States Supreme Court in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison (1977) reduced the obligations of employers to accommodate religious requests by requiring a showing the accommodation would impose merely a "de minimis" or minor burden on the employer. Now, decades later, the Supreme Court in Groff v. DeJoy (2023) has departed from the de minimis standard, holding that employers must instead demonstrate a substantial "undue burden" i.e., significant business costs, when denying religious accommodations.
In Groff, an Evangelical Christian employee at the United States Postal Service (USPS) requested Sundays off for worship and rest. Despite transferring to another location to avoid Sunday deliveries, the situation persisted, leading to disciplinary action and the employee's eventual resignation. Subsequently, he filed a lawsuit against USPS, contending that the USPS could have accommodated his religious practice without causing significant hardship.
Initially, the Court of Appeals favored USPS and applied the Hardison de minimis standard, asserting that granting Groff's request would burden USPS by necessitating other employees to cover his shift. However, the Supreme Court recognized the concerns of religious groups and acknowledged that the de minimis standard had resulted in repeated denial of even the most minimal accommodations for employees with religious beliefs. For this, the Court criticized the de minimis standard and provided a revised interpretation of Title VII, requiring employers to demonstrate substantial increased costs to their specific business when refusing religious accommodations. Justice Alito emphasized that employers must explore all alternatives before rejecting an employee's religious accommodation request and should avoid automatic excuses like imposing overtime on others, instead considering options such as voluntary shift swapping.
The Supreme Court's ruling establishes a higher standard for employers in California and across the nation when it comes to denying religious accommodations. Employers must now carefully assess religious accommodation requests and seek legal advice to ensure compliance with Title VII and other applicable laws.