Consider this: an employee refuses to accept Sunday shifts because, under his religion, that day is devoted to worship and rest. Is his employer legally required to accommodate him? For decades, the answer was easy. The employer could deny such an accommodation if it could show that doing so would result in more than a “de minimis” burden. In one of the last decisions of the 2023 term, Groff v. DeJoy, the U.S. Supreme Court changed everything. Now, employers have to meet a higher standard to justify denying an employee’s religious accommodation request.
This article will tell the story of the Groff case, explain the Supreme Court’s ruling, and provide some general guidance to employers who receive religious accommodation requests.
Gerald Groff’s battle with the United States Postal Service, his former employer, began over seven years ago. In 2016, when the Post Office where Mr. Groff worked began delivering Amazon packages on Sundays, Mr. Groff requested a transfer to a location that did not make Sunday deliveries. This was important to Mr. Groff, an Evangelical Christian, because it allowed him to devote Sunday to ‘worship and rest.’ The transfer was granted, but the following year Amazon deliveries began at Mr. Groff’s new location. When he was assigned Sunday shifts and refused to work, he began receiving progressive discipline. Ultimately, in January 2019, Mr. Groff resigned from the Post Office. Shortly after, he filed a claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (the federal law that prohibits religious discrimination in employment and requires employers to make reasonable accommodations in certain situations).
The case worked its way through the lower courts in favor of the employer. Both lower courts were able to find more than a de minimis burden or cost to the Post Office. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, relying on over four decades of precedent, determined that granting Mr. Groff’s request would cause more than a de minimis harm to the business because it would “impose on his coworkers, disrupt the workplace and workflow, and diminish employee morale.”
The Supreme Court reviewed the case to offer ‘clarifications’ to the 46-year-old de minimis burden standard. The Court reviewed the Hardison case (which established the de minimis burden standard in 1977) and determined that the widely accepted use of the term de minimis had been misunderstood for decades. “Even though Hardison’s reference to de minimis was undercut by conflicting language and was fleeting in comparison to its discussion of the principal issue of seniority rights, lower courts have latched on to de minimis as the governing standard.” Distancing itself from the de minimis standard, the Court now provides that “undue hardship is shown when a burden is substantial in the overall context of the employer’s burden.”.
It should be noted that the Supreme Court in Groff stopped short of articulating a more specific standard. Moving forward, courts evaluating such cases are directed to “take into account all relevant factors in the case  including the particular accommodations at issue and their practical impact in light of the nature, size, and operating costs of [an] employer.” It is clear that in addition to engaging in the interactive process with employees, additional analysis/troubleshooting (for lack of a better term) is required on the part of the employer. For example, inconvenience/frustration/loss of employee morale is no longer the end of the inquiry when considering time off requests under a religious exemption. A true economic impact, or negative tangible result to the business/operations will need to be shown to justify denial of a religious accommodation request.
This departure from the de minimis standard is not surprising. The Supreme Court’s ruling brings religious accommodation law more in line with how the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to handle disability-related accommodation requests. The ADA requires the employer to engage in an interactive, problem-solving process with the employee requesting an accommodation..
So, what should an employer do if an employee seeks a religion-based change to the employee’s schedule, duties, working conditions, etc.? For starters, it is critical to understand the employee’s limitation(s) due to their truly held practice, belief, or observation. What specifically about the employee’s practice, belief, or observation conflicts with their work schedule, duties, working conditions, etc.? The employer should then determine if there is any basis to question whether the employee’s practice, belief, or observation is truly held. While gathering this information, you will be interacting with the employee – requesting information, following up on questions, sometimes requesting additional information. Keep in mind that the accommodation requested does not ultimately need to be the accommodation that is granted. A court will look at whether an accommodation is reasonable in light of the request, the conflict due to a truly held practice, belief, or observation, and the interactive process between the employer and employee. Finally, the employer will need to come to a decision about whether it can grant the requested accommodation, or another reasonable accommodation. This is where Groff comes in, to deny an accommodation, an employer will need to identify an economic impact or negative tangible business result if an accommodation were granted.
If you are an employer with questions about religious accommodations in the workplace, reach out to one of Tucker Arensberg’s labor & employment attorneys for legal guidance.
 adjective: lacking significance or importance: so minor as to merit disregard. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/de%20minimis
 Groff v. DeJoy, 143 S. Ct. 2279 (2023).
 Groff v. DeJoy, 143 S. Ct. 2279, 2294 (2023).
August 31, 2023
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