July 11, 2023
The Supreme Court has made a slew of decisions in the last month, but only one has been unanimous: the issue of religious accommodations. And employers are directly impacted.
In the case Groff v. Dejoy, Gerald Groff sued his employer, the U.S. Postal Service, because they failed to meet his religious accommodation request — as a self-described Evangelical Christian, Groff observed Sabbath and did not want to work on Sundays. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Groff, sending the case back to lower courts with new guidelines.
The Court’s decision states that religious accommodations should be granted unless it imposes a burden that would substantially impact business operations. Nearly 50 years ago, in Trans World Airlines v. Hardison, the Supreme Court ultimately defined this burden as an accommodation that would force employers to apply anything more than minimum effort in meeting the request. In other words, employers cannot dismiss religious accommodations requests as easily as they had done in the past, underlines Steven Gutierrez, partner at the law firm Holland and Hart.
“For many years, the burden that has been placed on employers to accommodate has been interpreted by courts to be a lower obligation,” says Gutierrez. “This decision changes interpretation dramatically in favor of employees and will protect a far greater number of employees seeking religious accommodations.”
Gutierrez notes under the previous precedent set by Trans World Airlines v. Hardison, the U.S. Postal Service could have successfully argued that meeting Groff’s requests placed more than the minimum burden on the company due to co-workers filing grievances for covering Groff’s shifts. However, this is no longer the case.
“The fact that accommodating Groff on Sunday puts an extra burden on co-workers is not a substantial enough impact on business operations,” says Gutierrez. “It would be unreasonable not to accommodate.”
While Gutierrez believes this new precedent should apply to all religions, the vagueness around what would count as a “substantial” impact on an employer’s business could lead to discrimination against other religions down the line. But as this ruling stands, if a public-facing employee wears a hijab, but the employer insists it disrupts business, the company would likely lose that case in court since there’s no substantial burden being placed on the employer, explains Gutierrez.
While only more religious accommodation cases will further define the impact of this ruling, Gutierrez encourages employers to begin reevaluating their policies as well as internal HR practices. This may mean training managers and HR personnel on how to address religious accommodation requests.
“All requests should be brought to the attention of HR,” says Gutierrez. “You certainly don’t want managers saying comments that could be used as evidence of the company’s unreasonableness in accommodating a request.”
If employers want to play it safe, they will interpret the Supreme Court’s decision as one where they would rarely be in the right in denying a religious accommodation — so employers should make a concerted effort to meet their employees’ requests without burdening the employee in question or their co-workers. This is how employers can stay in line with the court’s decision as well as Title VI, which prohibits religious discrimination in the workplace, advises Gutierrez.
“You can no longer say, ‘This has a minimal impact on our business, therefore we don’t have to accommodate them,'” says Gutierrez. “You need to educate HR professionals and managers that there is a more substantial burden on the company.”