For decades, employers have found it easy to avoid liability under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—which requires employers to accommodate their employees’ religious practices unless doing so would result in an “undue hardship” on the employer’s business. Until last week, courts often allowed employers to prove “undue hardship” by simply showing that the requested accommodation would cause the employer’s business more than “de minimis” cost or effort. Lower courts have applied the “de minimis” standard ever since the Supreme Court used those words in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U. S. 63 (1977), and have often used it to deny employees even minor accommodations.
But now, nearly fifty years later, a unanimous Supreme Court has finally righted the wrong and clarified the rights of religious employees under Title VII. On June 29, 2023, the Court held in Groff v. Dejoy that an “undue hardship” under Title VII actually requires the employer to show that accommodating the employee’s religious exercise would impose a substantial burden in the overall context of the employer’s business. A de minimis burden is not enough. The Supreme Court also stressed the fact-specific nature of the inquiry and instructed the lower courts to apply the undue hardship test “in a manner that takes into account all relevant factors.” This fact-intensive, factor-based approach is similar to how lower courts and juries determine whether a burden is substantial in other contexts such as under the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act.
Now that the “undue hardship” test has been clarified and the “de minimis” standard done away with, employers will have to take a closer look at their employees’ religious accommodation requests. Absent proof that the accommodation would substantially burden their business, employers will need to make a more concerted effort to find ways to accommodate their employee’s religious exercise.