SCOTUS Expands Workplace Religious Accommodations Standard

Employers have been required to extend reasonable workplace religious accommodations ever since the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Such requests should only ever be denied when doing so would cause “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” But what does that mean, exactly? Los Angeles religious accommodations at work

Well as our Los Angeles employment discrimination lawyers can explain, since the late 1970s, courts have generally interpreted that to mean any employer effort or cost incurred that exceeded de minimis, or too minor or trivial to merit consideration. Admittedly, that’s a pretty low bar. So it’s long been pretty tough to successfully argue discrimination on the basis of failure to provide religious accommodations. But that’s about to change.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that picked that standard up off the floor. Justices asserted that an undue hardship in these cases should be defined as a burden that is substantial in the overall context of the business. There’s no clear, bright line rule, unfortunately. Determining whether a certain workplace religious accommodation imposed an undue hardship on the employer is a fact-specific determination.

In general, employers seeking to prove the requested accommodation would have caused undue hardship will need to show that it:

  • Is at minimum, something hard to bear.
  • Something that causes or entails suffering or privation/disadvantage.
  • Extreme privation, adversity, or suffering.

Although that’s still pretty broad, the Court made it a point in Goff v. DeJoy to say that in the context of employee rights, undue hardship on an employer needs to amount to something more severe than “a mere burden.” It would have to be unjustifiably excessive.

In other words, it sort of puts the ball back into the employer’s court. If they deny a workplace religious accommodation, the onus will be on them to show why it was not reasonable for their operation to swing. The practical impact of the accommodation would need to be considered in light of the nature, size, and operating cost of the employer.

Examples of commonly-requested religious accommodations at work:

  • Not being compelled to work on the Sabbath (Friday evening to Saturday evening for Jewish people and Sunday for Christians).
  • Wearing religious garb.
  • Time off to attend to religious obligations or observances.
  • Breaks throughout the day to perform daily prayers in a place that is quiet, clean, and dry.
  • Providing additional rest periods for employees who are fasting in observance of a religious custom.

Interestingly in our divided political climate, this SCOTUS ruling was not only unanimous 9-0, it’s being lauded by people on both liberals and conservatives.

The Goff case was filed by an Evangelical Christian whose religious beliefs hold that Sundays should be devoted to worship and rest. In 2012, he started working for the U.S. Postal Service as a mail carrier. For the most part, this didn’t involve working Sunday. However, that changed when USPS signed a deal to help deliver Amazon packages on Sunday.

In an effort to avoid being forced to work Sunday, plaintiff moved to a rural station that, at the time, still didn’t make Sunday deliveries. But that only lasted a couple years. When Amazon deliveries started at that station too, he requested a religious accommodation, and his Sunday deliveries were redistributed to other staff. However, USPS disciplined the worker for his refusal to work Sundays, and he ultimately quit.

In his religious discrimination lawsuit, plaintiff alleged his rights under Title VII were violated, and that USPS could have accommodated his request without undue hardship. The trial court ruled in favor of the employer, as did the federal appellate court, which found his requested accommodation meant more work for his co-workers, disrupted workflow, and lower employee morale. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed.

Contact the employment attorneys at Nassiri Law Group, practicing in Newport Beach, Riverside and Los Angeles. Call 714-937-2020.

Additional Resources:

Goff v. DeJoy, June 29, 2023, U.S. Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

U.S. Supreme Court to Rule on Employment Discrimination at Church-Run Schools, Jan. 22, 2020, Los Angeles Religious Discrimination Employment Lawyer Blog

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