Supreme Court Rejects 'De Minimis' Test for Title VII Religious Accommodations

Author: Emily Scace, Brightmine Legal Editor

June 29, 2023

In a rare unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court today rejected the long-standing interpretation of Title VII that an employer may deny a religious accommodation when the requested accommodation would impose more than a de minimis, or trifling, burden on the employer's business.

The case, Groff v. DeJoy, concerned US postal worker Gerald Groff, who sought exemption from Sunday work shifts because of his religious belief that Sundays should "be devoted to worship and rest" rather than "secular labor." After being dismissed from his employer for refusing Sunday work, he brought a lawsuit alleging religious discrimination in violation of Title VII.

Title VII, which applies to US employers with 15 or more employees, prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin. The law requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees' religious beliefs unless the accommodation would pose undue hardship on the conduct of the employer's business.

Undue Hardship 'Means What It Says'

Both the US district court that initially heard the case and the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard the appeal, ruled in favor of the USPS, relying on language in the 1977 case Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, which courts had interpreted to mean that "requiring an employer to bear more than a de minimis cost to provide a religious accommodation is an undue hardship." The "more than de minimis" standard was not difficult for employers to meet, and courts routinely decided in favor of employers in cases applying that test.

But the Supreme Court, reexamining the historical backdrop and context of the Hardison case, concluded that the "more than de minimis" language in Hardison had been given outsized importance that both conflicted with other parts of the decision and contradicted the plain language of Title VII.

Instead, the Court held, a religious accommodation imposes an undue hardship when the "burden is substantial in the overall context of the employer's business." The Court emphasized the fact-specific nature of this determination and stated that courts must consider "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 costs of an employer."

Undue hardship, the Court noted, does not include a coworker's dislike of a religious practice or resentment regarding "the mere fact of an accommodation." However, some impacts on an employee's coworkers may rise to the level of undue hardship if they "affect the conduct of the business."

The Court also made a point to clarify that "Title VII requires that an employer reasonably accommodate an employee's practice of religion, not merely that it assess the reasonableness of a particular possible accommodation." In other words, an employer faced with a request for religious accommodation may not simply conclude that a particular accommodation would pose an undue hardship and deny it; it must consider other options that may be available to alleviate the conflict between the demands of the job and the employee's religious practice or belief.

However, the Court declined to go further and apply the framework of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which defines undue hardship as "significant difficulty or expense," to the religious accommodation context. Instead, undue hardship simply "means what it says," and courts should take a common-sense approach in applying this standard.