Religious Accommodation Regarding Employment Rights Amended by a Recent Supreme Court Decision

The June 29, 2023 Supreme Court ruling regarding religious accommodation in Groff v. DeJoy changes federal law on employer responsibilities in the workplace. Specifically, the Supreme Court found that to deny an employee request for a workplace accommodation for a religious practice, the employer must show that the burden of granting the request “would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.” The Court then remanded the lawsuit back to the Third Circuit. How this decision will affect employers, employees, and other interested parties remains to be seen, but battle lines are drawn.

Groff Decision on Religious Accommodation

While some Court-watchers welcome this as a long-overdue clarification of the Supreme Court’s decision in 1977 in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, others see it as a reversal-by-stealth of existing workplace religious accommodation precedents. It may be a continuing step by the Court to grant preferred status to Free Exercise Clause claims. Does this decision open the floodgates for lawsuits seeking to exempt religiously observant employees from the law? As the ensuing fights rage, employers must keep on working with the nuts-and-bolts work of balancing respect for religious rights and business needs. Furthermore, HR management would appreciate guidance on religious exemption best practices.

Employment Rights Versus Employer Responsibilities

The employer/employee relationship is not a simple bilateral arrangement. It exists within a tangled web of health and safety regulations, civil rights protections, existing contract obligations, consumer protection laws, team morale, and customary business practices. These complications can make the field of employment law difficult.

Our Employment Lawyers Have Answers About Religious Accommodation and Employment Rights

If you were denied time off for religious practices and wish to understand your employment rights or if you have questions about your company’s compliance with workplace accommodations, reach out to our employment lawyers. Experience counts when you are dealing with new and not entirely clear laws. Click here, fill out and submit the form you reach by clicking on this link Contact Kilgore & Kilgore. Or you can call us at (214) 969-9099. Both the federal law, known as Title VII, and Chapter 21 of the Texas Labor Code protect Texas workers from employment discrimination based on religion, sex, disability, race, age, and national origin. For a wider view of our employment law practice, click this link Employment Law. We look forward to reviewing your situation to see if we can help.

In Groff, the Religious Accommodation Request Was Denied

Gerald Groff, a mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service and an Evangelical Christian, believes that the sabbath should be devoted to worship and rest. He did not want to work on Sundays for religious reasons. When Groff first started working at USPS, Sunday work was not necessary. Several years later, however, USPS contracted with Amazon to deliver packages on Sundays. Groff initially avoided the requirement by transferring to a rural facility that did not participate in the Amazon arrangement. When this facility later began requiring Sunday deliveries, USPS used other mail carriers to perform the Sunday deliveries, including carriers from other locations.

Eventually, Groff was asked to perform Sunday work, which he refused. He was disciplined and ultimately resigned. Groff then sued USPS under Title VII, asserting that USPS could have accommodated his Sunday sabbath practice without undue hardship to the conduct of its business. The district court granted summary judgment to USPS, and the Third Circuit affirmed, based on the Supreme Court’s decision in a case known as Trans World Airlines. Specifically, the Third Circuit found that USPS had shown that granting Groff’s request would cause it undue hardship because exempting Groff from Sunday work “imposed on his coworkers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale.” The Supreme Court disagreed.

A Look at Undue Hardship and “de Minimus”

This presents a puzzle for employers. In both Supreme Court cases, Groff and Trans World Airlines, employer cost was explored. Under Title VII, employers are required to reasonably accommodate employees whose sincerely held religious beliefs or observances conflict with work requirements, unless doing so would create an undue hardship for the employer.

The Trans World Airlines case dealt with facts very like those in the Groff case. In Trans World Airlines, Larry Hardison, an airline employee, refused to work on his sabbath for religious reasons. Work-arounds involving schedule changes and overtime incentives designed to induce other workers to pick up his shifts eventually failed. Hardison was fired. The Trans World Airlines case articulated the rule that “requiring an employer to bear more than a de minimis cost to give [an employee] Saturdays off is an undue hardship. The issue of an employer’s “undue hardship” is reduced to the single factor of financial cost.

The Trans World Airlines case tells us that “undue hardship” means money. The Supreme Court decision in Groff adds a new twist because it focuses on the term “de minimus.” We can assume that the term “substantial”, as used in the Court’s opinion, is more than “de minimus.” But beyond that, much is murky. For example:

  • How much money is substantial?
  • Does this new substantial test allow for a reintroduction of pre-Trans World Airline factors like employee inconvenience, morale, or collective bargaining contract issues?
  • What about consumer concerns? In its earliest incarnation, the post office was seen as a public good, a means of communication essential to a functioning democracy. This is different from most businesses.
  • Who is the consumer served by the Sunday delivery requirements? Is it the American public or is it Amazon? Do consumer needs matter? Who is the customer, and does that mean a different standard should apply?

Without delving into all the interesting questions, Groff seems to generally tip the balance in favor of the employee requesting a religious accommodation.

What Can HR Management Do?

Many employers may be willing to protect religious rights in the workplace, but this involves some tricky balancing of interests. Here are some suggestions:

Step one: Assess the Situation

It would be smart to identify the areas around which religious accommodation requests might arise. Among these are:

  • Days off for sabbath observance, including days that are not Sunday;
  • Religiously required clothing, including head-coverings and other modesty rules;
  • Accommodations for workers who fast. The Ramadan fast includes abstaining from water, which is especially brutal for those who work outside or in heavy labor during the heat of summer;
  • Hand washing facilities for workers for whom hand washing is religiously required;
  • Places and times to permit daily prayer, including sexually segregated spaces; and
  • Vaccine requirements.

These are just a few: you know your workforce best.

Step two: Document and Quantify

Managers should document all efforts to accommodate a worker’s request and quantify (preferably in numbers) financial cost, time, co-worker complaints, consumer issues – anything that can be counted. Imagine this as a 360-degree evaluation. HR management should be prepared to present extensive evidence of efforts to accommodate employee religious practices and the burden these steps impose. Conclusory statements are not useful.

Contact Our Employment Lawyers Regarding Workplace Discrimination

Our experienced employment lawyers understand how careful employers must be when handling requests for a workplace accommodation. As well-intentioned as most HR management is, it would be foolish to ignore the new scrutiny under which these claims are viewed by a court of law. Reach out to Kilgore & Kilgore for a free review of the facts of your case and for suggestions about how to comply with the evolving standard. Click here to get the conversation started contact Kilgore & Kilgore

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