The Religious Accommodation Test


Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating against workers based on religion and other protected categories. That law also requires employers to make reasonable accommodation for a worker’s religious beliefs — so long as those accommodations don’t impose an “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” But what does “undue hardship” really mean?

Forty-six years ago, in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, the Supreme Court ruled that “undue burden” was defined to be “more than a de minimis cost.” In other words, employers must accommodate a worker’s religious practices and beliefs if it can be done easily and at minimal cost. Otherwise, the employee is out of luck. That very low standard has enabled employers to refuse many religious accommodation requests and has frustrated those seeking to require employers to do more to accommodate the religious practices of their workers.

That may soon change.

The Supreme Court has agreed to review the case of Gerald Groff, an evangelical Christian who observes Sunday as a day of worship and rest. Groff worked as a non-career auxiliary mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service. His job was to fill in when other workers were not available, including on weekends and holidays. For the first few years of his employment, Groff was not asked to work on Sundays. But demand for fill-ins increased when the post office started delivering for Amazon on Sundays. Initially, Groff himself or his managers were able to arrange for others to fill in for him on that day. But as demand mounted, Groff was threatened with disciplinary action if he didn’t take assigned Sunday shifts. Rather than face the disciplinary threat, Groff quit. He then sued the post office for its failure to accommodate his religious beliefs.

Both the trial and appellate courts found that the post office had made reasonable accommodation for Groff’s religious beliefs. And they found that to require anything more would impose an undue hardship on the post office and on Groff’s co-workers. Those rulings were consistent with decades of other court conclusions since the Hardison
case was decided.

But today’s Supreme Court — with its 6-3 conservative supermajority and a pronounced sensitivity to religious accommodation — is widely expected to change things. For most court watchers, the question isn’t whether the Hardison case will be overruled but how far the court will go in defining the standard for “undue hardship.”

Religious public-interest groups are urging a standard like that of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires accommodations for disabled workers unless doing so presents an “undue hardship” on the employer and defines “undue hardship” as an “action requiring significant difficulty or expense.”

Such a change would be a big deal, particularly since the ruling could impact a lot more than the scheduling of work shifts. Things like an employer’s grooming and dress-code requirements, workplace expressions like the wearing of religious objects and symbols, and even workplace prayer activity could be implicated by any new definition of
“undue hardship.”

There will be a lot riding on how the court seeks to balance the competing interests of employers and their workforce. We look forward to argument on the case and a decision later this year.


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