Supreme Court Clarifies Standard for Employers Claiming “Undue Hardship” Defense in Religious Accommodation Cases

June 30, 2023

Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court issued a much-anticipated decision addressing religious accommodations in the workplace. The case, Groff v. Dejoy, arose when Gerald Groff, a United States Postal Service employee, and Evangelical Christian, sought to be excused from working on Sundays to observe his Sabbath.  

When Groff began working for USPS in 2012, his assignment generally did not require Sunday work. Things changed in 2013 when USPS entered into an agreement with Amazon to facilitate Sunday deliveries of Amazon packages.  

Groff refused to work on Sundays, receiving progressive discipline until his resignation in 2019. Meanwhile, USPS filled the Sunday vacancies created by Groff’s absences with his coworkers and, on occasion, the local postmaster. Unsurprisingly, Groff’s coworkers complained about being forced to cover his Sunday shifts. After resigning, Groff sued, alleging that USPS failed to accommodate his religion under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

The case reached the Philadelphia-based Third Circuit in 2022. Applying Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U. S. 63 (1977), the Third Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of USPS, concluding that excluding Groff from Sunday work created an “undue hardship” by “impos[ing] on his coworkers, disrupt[ing] the workplace and workflow, and diminish[ing] employee morale.” After granting certiorari, the Supreme Court considered whether a stray line in Hardison, long relied upon by circuit courts for the proposition that “undue hardship” in the context of religious accommodations means any effort or cost that is “more than . . . de minimus[,]” governed defenses to religious accommodation claims. The Court concluded it did not. 

Justice Alito delivered the unanimous opinion of the Court, with Justice Sotomayor concurring and Justice Jackson joining in the concurrence. The Court held that circuit courts have misapplied Hardison, affirming that employers’ “undue hardship” defenses to religious accommodation claims require demonstrating more than a merely de minimus burden on the employer’s business. Instead, an “undue hardship” exists when the burden of granting an accommodation results in substantial cost increases for the business in relation to its operations, size, revenues, and other relevant factors. As Groff affirms, the larger the employer, the larger the costs must be to lawfully deny a requested religious accommodation. 

In clarifying the standard for religious accommodation claims, the Supreme Court noted that Hardison turned on whether a religious accommodation could be lawfully denied when it interfered with a bona fide seniority system created by a collective bargaining agreement. Groff did not overturn Hardison but instead reinforced the correct standard for assessing an “undue hardship” defense: substantial increased costs rather than de minimus burdens. The Court further concluded that today’s decision comports with existing Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidance on religious accommodations. 

As for next steps, the Supreme Court remanded this matter to the Third Circuit, which will – in all likelihood – remand the matter to the district court to further develop the evidentiary record necessary to assess USPS’s “undue hardship” defense in light of today’s opinion. As the Supreme Court noted, USPS may well prevail, but only if it appropriately shows the burden imposed by Groff’s request to not work on Sundays. 

While the Court’s opinion may not be the radical restructuring of existing precedent some anticipated, the Court provided employers clarity regarding how to evaluate religious accommodation requests. Employers who deny religious accommodation requests due to “undue hardship” should be prepared to demonstrate exactly how substantial a burden would be created by the accommodation. 

The information contained in this publication should not be construed as legal advice, is not a substitute for legal counsel, and should not be relied on as such. For legal advice or answers to specific questions, please contact one of our attorneys.