In a unanimous decision on June 29, 2023, the United States Supreme Court clarified, without overruling, a decision on religious belief accommodations that has guided employers since 1977. According to the Supreme Court, what the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), lower courts, employment lawyers and human resource professionals have for nearly 50 years considered to be the test for assessing “undue hardship” when accommodating religious beliefs was never intended to provide such a standard.

Court clarification on religious belief accommodations

As the Supreme Court explained:

a single, but oft-quoted, sentence in the opinion of the Court, if taken literally, suggested that even a pittance might be too much for an employer to be forced to endure. The line read as follows: “To require TWA to bear more than a de minimis cost in order to give Hardison Saturdays off is an undue hardship.” Although this line would later be viewed by many lower courts as the authoritative interpretation of the statutory term “undue hardship,” it is doubtful that it was meant to take on that large role.

While acknowledging that both lower courts and the EEOC had “accepted Hardison as prescribing a “‘more than a de minimis cost’” test,” in Groff v. DeJoy the Supreme Court corrected this misunderstanding:

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. Hardison cannot be reduced to that one phrase. In describing an employer’s “undue hardship” defense, Hardison referred repeatedly to “substantial” burdens, and that formulation better explains the decision. We therefore, like the parties, understand Hardison to mean that “undue hardship” is shown when a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business. This fact-specific inquiry comports with both Hardison and the meaning of “undue hardship” in ordinary speech.

Significantly, the Supreme Court rejected the employee’s suggestion that it “instruct lower courts to ‘draw upon decades of ADA caselaw’” as well as the government’s suggestion that it simply ratify the EEOC’s regulatory interpretations, reasoning that“[b]oth of these suggestions go too far.” Instead, the Supreme Court reiterated:

What is most important is that “undue hardship” in Title VII means what it says, and courts should resolve whether a hardship would be substantial in the context of an employer’s business in the commonsense manner that it would use in applying any such test.

Employers should prepare for more accommodation requests

Before concluding, the Supreme Court made two other important clarifications on accommodations for religious beliefs:  

  • First, the Supreme Court observed that the impact of an accommodation on co-workers may be a relevant factor to consider since it “may have ramifications for the conduct of the employer’s business,” but made clear that “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.’”
  • Second, the Supreme Court explained that “Title VII requires that an employer reasonably accommodate an employee’s practice of religion, not merely that it assess the reasonableness of a particular possible accommodation or accommodations.” In other words, even if an employer concludes that the accommodation proposed by the employee would create an undue hardship it must also consider other options.

This opinion, as well as the concurring opinion, will generate significant legal and political commentary for a variety of reasons. And its practical impact remains to be seen. Employers should, however, be prepared to receive more requests for religious accommodations in the future. Employers must be mindful that showing that it will result in more than a de minimis cost to the employer is no longer a valid defense. Under the clarification offered, such accommodation may be required unless it would pose a substantial burden in the overall context of an employer’s business.