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The New Standard when Analyzing Requests for Religious Accommodations in the Workplace

By Renee Mielnicki, Esquire

As most employers know, there are lots of employment laws that regulate the workplace. One major federal employment law is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act which applies to employers with 15 or more employees. This law prohibits discrimination and harassment that is based on race, color, religion, national origin, and sex. It also requires covered employers to reasonably accommodate (i.e., make a modification to the work environment) an applicant’s or an employee’s sincerely held religious belief if there is a conflict between the individual’s religious belief and a work requirement, unless it would cause an undue hardship on the employer’s business.

Examples of religious accommodations are as follows:

  • an employee needs an exception to the company’s dress and grooming code for a religious practice, such as a Pentecostal Christian woman who does not want to wear pants or short skirts, a Muslim woman who wears a religious headscarf (hijab) or a Jewish man who wears a skullcap (yarmulke);
  • a Catholic employee needs a schedule change so that he can attend church services on Good Friday;
  • a Christian pharmacy employee needs to be excused from filling birth control prescriptions; and
  • a Jehovah’s Witness seeking to change job tasks at a factory so that he will not have to work on producing war weapons.

If you noticed above, the standard to deny a religious accommodation is “an undue hardship on the employer’s business.” But what does that really mean?  Well, before the summer of 2023, the standard was somewhat low. It meant an employer had to show any cost it would suffer if the request were granted that was more than minimal (i.e., de minimis in legal terms), such causing a lack of necessary staffing, jeopardizing security or health or costing the employer more than a minimal amount.

This summer, the United States Supreme Court issued a landmark case called Groff v. Dejoy, Postmaster General that changed the standard for what constitutes an undue hardship. In Groff, the Supreme Court held that Title VII requires an employer that denies a religious accommodation to show that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.

Because the standard prior to Groff was reasonably low, most employers and courts applying it to requests could more easily deny them and courts routinely favored the employer’s decision. But things have changed with the Groff decision making the standard for denial  much higher. Employers now need to show much more than a minimal cost to deny a request as an undue hardship. Instead, a substantial cost must now be demonstrated.  

Seems confusing, but our highest Court did give some guidance on the difference between the old and the new standard. While there is no bright-line test, a fact-specific analysis must take place where all facts surrounding a request must be considered when deciding if a religious accommodation would impose an “undue hardship.” Employers must take into account all of the unique facts with a request such as the size of business, expense in implementing the request, reasonable alternatives, the effect it would have on the other employees, etc.

Clear as mud, I know. However, other courts will eventually start interpreting the Groff decision and the standard will become clearer. Until then, please reach out to us for guidance when faced with this issue by calling our HR Helpline at 855-873-0374.

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