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Breaking: US Supreme Court Makes Religious Accommodation Cases Way Easier For Employees

by | Jul 6, 2023 | Employment Discrimination, Employment Law, Federal Law Update, Religious Discrimination |

On June 29, 2023, the United States Supreme Court issued an important decision that very firmly supports employee’s rights to get religious accommodations in the workplace. In Groff v. DeJoy, the Supreme Court clarified what an employer must show to establish an “undue burden” as part of its affirmative defense to explain why it refused a religious accommodation. Prior to Groff most federal courts held that an employer could avoid giving a religious accommodation by pointing to de minimis costs or impact on its business, such as additional administrative costs, the morale of other employees, or client preferences. This made it very difficult for an employee to get a religious accommodation from an employer who just simply did not want to do so.

Let’s start with the background of Groff. Gerald Groff, believed that as Evangelical Christian Sundays should be reserved for worship and rest. Groff initially worked as a United States Postal Service (USPS) mail carrier, which didn’t require Sunday work. However, when USPS started handling Sunday deliveries for Amazon, Groff transferred to a rural station that did not have Sunday deliveries. But when Amazon deliveries then started at that station as well, Groff refused to work on Sundays. USPS responded by redistributing his Sunday deliveries to other staff members and disciplining Groff, who ultimately resigned.

Groff filed a lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, arguing that USPS should have accommodated his religious practice and could have done so without incurring any significant hardship. The United States District Court for the Easter District of Pennsylvania dismissed Groff’s religious accommodation claims, and the Third Circuit affirmed citing to its understanding of the precedent set in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63, 97 S. Ct. 2264, 53 L. Ed. 2d 113 (1977). The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit interpreted this precedent to mean that requiring an employer to bear more than a minimal cost for a religious accommodation would be an undue hardship. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals held that exempting Groff from Sunday work had caused disruptions in the workplace, workflow, and employee morale, thus meeting the minimal cost standard.

Because this is such a new opinion, I have pulled key language from the decision to discuss.

“We hold that showing ‘more than a de minimis cost,’ as that phrase is used in common parlance, does not suffice to establish ‘undue hardship’ under Title VII.”

Right out of the gate, the Supreme Court, in the opinion authored by Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., made it clear that it was getting rid of any “de minimus” standard that had become pervasive in lower courts for determining whether a religious accommodation created an undue burden. Having removed the “de minimus” standard from consideration, the Supreme Court set out how “undue hardship” should be defined moving forward. It held:

Here, the key statutory term is “undue hardship.” In common parlance, a “hardship” is, at a minimum, “something hard to bear.” Random House Dictionary of the English Language 646 (1966) (Random House). Other definitions go further. See, e.g., Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 1033 (1971) (Webster’s Third) (“something that causes or entails suffering or privation”); American Heritage Dictionary 601 (1969) (American Heritage) (“[e]xtreme privation; adversity; suffering”); Black’s Law Dictionary, at 646 (“privation, suffering, adversity”). But under any definition, a hardship is more severe than a mere burden. So even if Title VII said only that an employer need not be made to suffer a “hardship,” an employer could not escape liability simply by showing that an accommodation would impose some sort of additional costs. Those costs would have to rise to the level of hardship, and adding the modifier “undue” means that the requisite burden, privation, or adversity must rise to an “excessive” or “unjustifiable” level. Random House 1547; see, e.g., Webster’s Third 2492 (“inappropriate,” “unsuited,” or “exceeding or violating propriety or fitness”); American Heritage 1398 (“excessive”). The Government agrees, noting that “‘undue hardship means something greater than hardship.’” Brief for United States 30; see id., at 39 (arguing that “accommodations should be assessed while ‘keep[ing] in mind both words in the key phrase of the actual statutory text: “undue” and “hardship” (quoting Adeyeye v. Heartland Sweeteners, LLC, 721 F. 3d 444, 456 (CA7 2013)).

From this language, employees can now argue that they are entitled to a religious unless the employer can produce evidence showing that such accommodation would cause an excessive, extreme, or unjustifiable burden, privation, or adversity. In other words, the employer would have to show through evidence that giving the religious accommodation would result in the business suffering.

Critically, the United States Supreme Court further required that Courts consider the sufficiency of the employer’s suffering on a case-by-case basis looking at the facts of each case:

“undue hardship” is shown when a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business. See Tr. of Oral Arg. 61–62 (argument of Solicitor General). This fact-specific inquiry comports with both Hardison and the meaning of “undue hardship” in ordinary speech. … [C]ourts must apply the test in a manner that takes into account 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 cost of [an] employer.”

By making this a “fact-specific inquiry,” there is a good argument to be made that the Supreme Court took this evaluation out of the hands of the judges, who are only permitted to decide issues of law, and squarely placed this issue into the control of the jury, which is who is supposed to decide all question of fact. If this reading is correct, then it would make it much harder for District Courts to dismiss religious accommodation cases as a matter of law. Faced with more jury trial on this issue or even appeals over whether the issue should have gone to the jury, employer should be more likely to settle these cases more favorably to the employee.

Moreover, to avoid lower courts from just saying that employee discontent simply satisfied this new excessive or extreme burden standard, the Supreme Court went even further:

Specifically, a coworker’s dislike of “religious practice and expression in the workplace” or “the mere fact [of] an accommodation” is not “cognizable to factor into the undue hardship inquiry.” Id., at 89–90. To the extent that this was not previously clear, we agree. An employer who fails to provide an accommodation has a defense only if the hardship is “undue,” and a hardship that is attributable to employee animosity to a particular religion, to religion in general, or to the very notion of accommodating religious practice cannot be considered “undue.” If bias or hostility to a religious practice or a religious accommodation provided a defense to a reasonable accommodation claim, Title VII would be at war with itself.

Lastly, outside of the direct language of the Groff opinion, it is important to recognize that this is the second time in the last three years that the United States Supreme Court has significantly expanded the scope of employee’s rights under Title VII. Almost exactly three years ago, in Clayton County. Bostock v. Clayton County, the Supreme Court held that Title VII protects employees against discrimination, harassment or wrongful termination because their sexual orientation or gender identity. While Groff is not as historically significant as Bostock, when viewed together lower courts, employers, and employment law attorneys best take notice that this Supreme Court may truly be on the side of the employees.

Best Religious Discrimination Lawyer Blogs on Point:

Do I have a religious discrimination claim for my job’s refusal to accommodate my religious beliefs?

Consulting directly with an attorney is crucial when considering whether you have a religious discrimination claim for your job’s refusal to accommodate your religious beliefs. An attorney specializing in employment law and religious discrimination can provide invaluable guidance and expertise in evaluating the merits of your case. They will assess the specific details of your situation, such as the nature of your religious beliefs, the extent of the accommodation requested, and the employer’s response. By consulting with an attorney, you can obtain a thorough understanding of the applicable legal standards, potential legal remedies, and the likelihood of success. An attorney will help you navigate complex legal processes, gather evidence, and develop a strong legal strategy tailored to your unique circumstances. Their expertise ensures that you are well-informed about your rights, the legal options available to you, and the best course of action to pursue your claim effectively.

To that end, you should call the right attorney to schedule a free and confidential consultation. (Read: What is the Spitz No Fee Guarantee?). Call our top employment lawyers in Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, and Kentucky to get help now. Spitz, The Employee’s Law Firm and its experienced attorneys are dedicated to protecting employees’ rights and solving employment disputes.

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