Supreme Court’s ‘Groff’ Decision Makes It Harder to Reject Religious Accommodations Requests

Bivocational pastors and church planters working secular jobs should pay attention to what the Groff decision means.

An employer that receives an employee’s religious accommodation request under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 must work to grant it unless the employer can demonstrate it would cause a substantially negative result to its business.

Title VII prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, gender, or religion.

Greater protections for religious beliefs, practices

For more than 45 years, lower courts have referenced a lower standard employers could use to evaluate religiously affiliated requests, which made it easier for employers to reject those requests.

The Court’s new clarification (Groff v. DeJoy, 600 U.S. ____ (2023)) provides greater protections for employees who encounter work situations that potentially clash with their religious beliefs and practices, including wearing specific religious attire and Sabbath observation.

Bivocational pastors and church planters especially will find the outcome helpful as they juggle ministry work with secular employment.

But it’s important to also note the standard only applies to employers subject to Title VII—those engaged in interstate commerce and having at least 15 employees.

Background Reading: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits covered employers from discriminating against any employee on account of the employee’s religion. Employers are required to “reasonably accommodate” employees’ religious practices, so long as they can do so without undue hardship on the conduct of their business. Many states’ civil rights laws have a similar provision.

While the latest ruling doesn’t ensure every accommodation request will be granted, it does ensure an employer can’t reject one unless it demonstrates a substantial burden “in the overall context of [its] business” would arise by granting it, wrote Justice Samuel Alito for the Court.

More than ‘de minimis’

Alito wrote that most lower courts have incorrectly “latched on to ‘de minimis’ as the governing standard” for evaluating religious accommodation requests.

The term “de minimis” (very small or trifling), was briefly mentioned in a 1977 Supreme Court ruling involving an airline worker who sought a religious accommodation under Title VII (Hardison v. Trans World Airlines, Inc., 432 U.S. 63 (1977)).

Though the Court favored the airline in Hardison, the Court’s majority was more focused on “undue hardship” for its analysis—language drawn from Title VII itself, Justice Alito wrote.

Even the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has interpreted Hardison’s outcome to mean “more than a ‘de minimis cost’ test,” he added.

Subsequent lower court decisions nevertheless embraced the “de minimis test,” Justice Alito continued, which “has blessed the denial of even minor accommodation in many cases, making it harder for members of minority faiths to enter the job market.”

Groff asked for Sundays off

Gerald Groff is an Evangelical Christian who worked for the United States Postal Service (USPS) in Pennsylvania.

After his USPS office began handling Sunday deliveries for Amazon in 2013, Groff—who wished to follow the Bible’s teaching about not working on the Sabbath—requested and received a transfer to an office unaffected by the Amazon relationship.

About four years later, though, Groff’s new post office also began making Sunday deliveries for Amazon. Groff was told he was required to work Sundays.

Groff made informal arrangements to cover shifts, but eventually sought a religious accommodation. While his lawyer conceded the request was never rejected, Groff believed it was denied in practice, including through the receiving of discipline.

The USPS contended Groff’s request created turmoil at the post office, including one mail carrier’s decision to quit and another’s decision to seek union help. Groff quit and filed his lawsuit soon after.

The Court in Groff declined to rule on whether USPS showed a substantial burden arose from Groff’s request. Instead, it sent the case back to the lower courts to decide it.

The Court also declined to specify “what an employer must prove to defend a denial of a religious accommodation,” Justice Alito said. “(B)ut we think it reasonable to begin with Title VII’s text … the key statutory term is ‘undue hardship.’ In common parlance, a ‘hardship’ is, at a minimum, ‘something hard to bear.’ Random House Dictionary of the English Language 646 (1966) (Random House). Other definitions go further.”   

Alito continued: “So considering ordinary meaning while taking Hardison as a given, we are pointed toward something closer to Hardison’s reference to ‘substantial additional costs’ or ‘substantial expenditures.’”

Such considerations should take “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,’” Justice Alito said.

A caution about ‘undue hardships’

The Court also noted certain “undue hardships” that employers cannot use.

“(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,’” Justice Alito explained. “If bias or hostility to a religious practice or a religious accommodation provided a defense to a reasonable accommodation claim, Title VII would be at war with itself.”

EXAMPLE 1. Pastor Craig is the pastor of a small church. To augment his compensation, he decides to look for a job with a secular employer. After a few months of searching he finds a position with Amazon as a driver. However, Amazon decides not to hire him when it discovers that he would not be able to work on Sundays because of his pastoral duties at the church. Craig sues Amazon for violating Title VII’s ban on religious discrimination in employment. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has made it unlawful for covered employers to “refuse to hire” any individual because of such individual’s religion. Under Title VII, employers are required to “accommodate” the “reasonable religious needs” of employees unless doing so would impose an “undue hardship” on them. In the past, an undue hardship was interpreted to mean “more than a de minimis (i.e., minimal) cost” to an employer for accommodating an employee’s religious practices. But as the US Supreme Court now recognizes, such an interpretation is meaningless since a “minimal cost” would be present in virtually every case, meaning that employers would not need to accommodate the religious practices of employees. The Court invalidated this interpretation in the Groff ruling, and replaced it with a new one: “We hold that showing more than a de minimis cost . . . does not suffice to establish undue hardship under Title VII. . . . Undue hardship is shown when a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business. . . . This fact-specific inquiry . . . comports with . . . the meaning of undue hardship in ordinary speech.”

The key point is that it will be more difficult for employers to avoid a duty to accommodate employee religious practices under the Court’s new definition of undue hardship.

EXAMPLE 2. Same facts as the previous example, except that Pastor Craig was hired by a local business with 10 employees. It is important to point out that Title VII only applies to employers having 15 or more employees. So, in this example, Title VII would not apply, meaning that Pastor Craig could not sue the prospective employer for religious discrimination under federal law. Note, however, that several states have similar laws to Title VII, and these laws generally require fewer than 15 employees to apply.

Church Law & Tax Co-Founder and Senior Editor Richard R. Hammar contributed to this report.

Matthew Branaugh is an attorney, and the content editor for Christianity Today's Church Law & Tax.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations." Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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