Employers faced with requests from employees for a religious accommodation to an employment requirement, policy or practice are now required to apply a new undue hardship analysis when considering whether to grant or deny the request. In a unanimous opinion issued Thursday, June 29, 2023, the United States Supreme Court ruled a showing of more than a de minimis or minimal cost will not establish undue hardship when considering an employee’s religious accommodation request.
Employers and their advisors have analyzed religious accommodation requests under a standard supporting denial of the accommodation if it posed more than a minimal hardship to the employer, applying 1977 precedent from the same Court. Today’s Court finds the 1977 opinion was improperly construed as requiring only more than a de minimis or”very small or trifling” cost. In so holding, the Court acknowledged the 1977 opinion used the term de minimis cost in its language but also referred to “substantial burdens” an employer must show to establish undue hardship before denying a religious accommodation request. The Court noted that its interpretation aligns with guidance issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) as to what amounts to undue hardship.
The case before the Court pertained to a United States Postal Service (USPS) worker who was required to deliver packages on Sundays, the Sabbath day of his religion, as a result of the USPS’ contract with Amazon. The employee was disciplined for refusing to work on Sundays and eventually resigned, bringing suit against the USPS alleging religious discrimination under Title VII, asserting the USPS could have granted his request without undue hardship. The federal district court applied the more than de minimis standard and granted summary judgment for USPS. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling, finding the de minimis standard was met. SCOTUS vacated the decision and remanded it to the district court for application of the correct standard, noting “this case presents the Court’s first opportunity in nearly fifty years to explain the [1977 opinion].”
The Court’s holding requires employers denying a religious accommodation request to show the burden of granting the accommodation would require substantial hardship in relation to its particular business due to increased costs or overtime work required of coworkers that would impact business operations. Employers have experience in applying this analysis to accommodation requests made on the basis of disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but its application could well prove difficult in practical application for some employers, such as those whose operations require 24/7 staffing and are already experiencing staffing shortage in today’s labor market.