Friday, June 30, 2023

SCOTUS clarifies "undue hardship" standard for religious accommodation under Title VII

Awe man, how embarrassing. It turns out that some of us (by which I mean basically all of us) have been getting it wrong for 46 years! You see, Title VII requires employers to reasonably accommodate an employee's sincerely held religious beliefs unless doing so would impose an "undue hardship."

Well, apparently we've been misinterpreting a 1977 Supreme Court decision (Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison) to interpret "undue hardship" as meaning "more than a de minimis cost." In fairness to us, the Supreme Court decision in question literally says, “To require TWA to bear more than a de minimis cost in order to give Hardison Saturdays off is an undue hardship.” Or, if you like ellipses to really drive it home, "more than a de minimis cost . . . . is an undue hardship."

Justice Alito
No, no, no, says SCOTUS. Yesterday, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Groff v. DeJoy. Now, despite my sarcasm, it has always been odd that "undue hardship," meant "more than de minimis" for religious accommodations, but something far more substantial under the ADA's disability  accommodation provisions. And, as the Court noted yesterday, "de minimis" means something far less than the plain language understanding of the phrase "undue hardship."

But, hey, the past is the past. Let's cut to the chase, what does "undue hardship" really mean in the context of a religious accommodation defense? 

  • "We think it is enough to say that an employer must show that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business."
  • "[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.”
The fundamentals remain unchanged: An employer must reasonably accommodate an employee's sincerely held religious beliefs unless it imposes an undue hardship. Now, however, the bar has been raised for what counts as an "undue hardship."

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