Supreme Court May Compel More Religious Accommodations at Work

Author: David B. Weisenfeld

January 30, 2023

The Supreme Court will hear a case in the coming months that could expand when employers must accommodate their employees' religious beliefs. In Groff v. DeJoy, the justices will decide the extent to which providing a religious accommodation imposes an undue hardship on an employer.

The case involves a former postal worker, Gerald Groff, who asked to be exempted from delivering Amazon packages on Sundays for the US Postal Service because of his Christian religious beliefs. But it has clear implications for private employers of all sorts.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act bars discrimination based on religion and requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations unless doing so would create an undue hardship.

High Bar for Employees

However, a landmark 1977 Supreme Court case, Trans World Airlines v. Hardison, interpreted Title VII narrowly and placed strict limits on an employee's ability to seek such accommodations. The Court held that a private employer need not accommodate an employee's religious accommodation request if doing so would require the employer to bear more than a "trivial or minimal cost."

In the present case, the US Postal Service at first had other employees fill in on Sundays for Groff. But management later informed him that he would have to work some scheduled Sunday shifts or find another job.

The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals backed the employer's claim that accommodating Groff presented an undue hardship because regularly having other employees cover his shift harmed employee morale.

Broader View of Religious Rights Lately

The Supreme Court has taken a broader view of religious rights in recent years, so there is speculation the justices may use this case to overrule or scale back Hardison and make it much more difficult for employers to evade religious accommodation requests.

The justices will now decide whether an employer may demonstrate undue hardship under Title VII merely by showing that a requested accommodation burdens an employee's co-workers rather than the business itself. On appeal, the former employee claimed that the employer must show "significant difficulty or expense," not just something trivial.

The Court will hear arguments in the case on April 18, with a decision expected before the end of June.