Navigating the Evolving Landscape of Religious Accommodations: What Employers Need to Know About the Supreme Court’s Upcoming Decision

In the United States, individuals have the right to practice their religion freely and without interference. This includes the right to observe religious holidays and practices. However, when it comes to the workplace, accommodating religious observances can be challenging for employers. In this article, we will explore the history of reasonable accommodations in the workplace and the challenges that arose from the “undue hardship” standard. We will also take a closer look at a recent case that sheds light on the importance of accommodating religious observances and how it could impact future Supreme Court decisions.

Congress amends the Civil Rights Act to accommodate religious observance or practice

In 1972, Congress amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to require employers to “reasonably accommodate all aspects of an employee’s religious observance or practice,” unless it caused “undue hardship” to the company. This amendment was groundbreaking in its acknowledgement that individuals have a right to practice their religion freely and without interference, even while at work.

The Supreme Court defined “undue hardship” in 1977

Five years later, in 1977, the Supreme Court had the opportunity to interpret what “undue hardship” meant in the context of Title VII. In the case TWA v. Hardison, an employee requested Saturdays off to observe his Sabbath, but his employer denied the request due to a scheduling conflict. The Court ultimately sided with the employer stating that accommodating the employee’s request would have caused an “undue hardship” since it would have required other employees to take on additional burden and disrupt the normal operations of the company.

Postal Worker Gerald Groff’s Case

In 2018, postal worker Gerald Groff filed a lawsuit claiming that the United States Postal Service violated his religious rights when they denied his request for a Saturday Sabbath off. Groff, who is a Christian, believes that Sunday is a day of rest and reflection. In this case, the Appeals Court for the Third Circuit concluded that the request was reasonable and that the USPS failed to reasonably accommodate Groff’s religious observance. The court also concluded that the burden imposed by accommodating Mr. Groff’s request, such as reassigning routes, was de minimis, meaning it was minimal and did not impose an undue burden on the Postal Service.

The Appeals Court concluded that the undue burden imposed a cost that was more than de minimis

The Appeals Court for the Third Circuit’s conclusion that accommodating Mr. Groff’s request would impose a de minimis cost on the Postal Service was significant. In this ruling, the court relied on the plain language of the Civil Rights Act and the definition of “undue burden.” The Court further noted that relying on other employees’ attitudes and opinions about accommodating religious practices was a non-starter. This decision could pave the way for future legal cases involving accommodations for religious observances in the workplace.

Looking to the dictionary to define “undue burden”

In the decision, the court relied on the dictionary definition of the term “undue burden” to define what it meant in the context of reasonable accommodations for religious observances. The court defined the term as an excessive hardship or a hardship that is more than appropriate or normal. This interpretation provides a broader view of what constitutes an undue burden on an employer.

The Origin of the De Minimis Idea

The “de minimis” concept also came into play in the Groff case. The Appeals Court noted that the Supreme Court created the idea in the TWA v. Hardison case out of “thin air.” This means that there was no clear legal basis for defining what an undue burden would look like in the context of religious observance. The Groff decision provides a more reasonable interpretation of what the term means and gives greater clarity to employers regarding their obligations in accommodating religious observances.

The language of “Reasonable Accommodation” in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Another source of guidance for employers regarding reasonable accommodation is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities, and the concept of reasonable accommodation is similar to the standard set by the Civil Rights Act. The critical difference between the two is that the ADA’s language is more specific in defining what constitutes a reasonable accommodation while Title VII is broadly worded.

“Reliance on other employees’ attitudes and opinions is a non-starter

The Appeals Court’s decision in the Groff case is significant because it provides guidance on the factors that the court deems appropriate to consider when assessing whether a company would be unduly burdened by accommodating an employee’s religious observance request. The court found that relying on the attitudes and opinions of other employees was a non-starter since accommodating religious observance is often a personal choice that employees have a right to make.

The Importance of Listening to Requests for Accommodation

It is essential for employers to listen to an employee’s request for a reasonable accommodation. Many employees may be hesitant to make such requests, fearing that they will be seen as difficult or that it will cause them to lose their jobs. However, according to the Civil Rights Act, employers have an obligation to provide reasonable accommodations for religious observances as long as it does not pose an undue burden on the company.

Prediction: The Supreme Court will jettison the 46-year-old case by June 2023

It is anticipated that the Supreme Court will review the Groff case and decide whether the standard for “undue burden” in the context of religious accommodations in the workplace needs to be revised. In light of the Groff decision, the Court may modify what it means to impose an undue burden on an employer or eliminate the concept altogether. It is expected that the Court will make a ruling by June 2023, which could impact how companies handle requests for religious accommodations in the future.

The Groff case provides valuable insights into the ongoing debate over religious accommodations in the workplace. It highlights the importance of listening to employees’ requests for reasonable accommodations and provides employers with guidance on what constitutes an undue burden on the company. It is expected to influence future Supreme Court decisions and will likely continue to be an issue that is debated for years to come.

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