Skip to Content

“But I Can’t Work on Sundays. . .” The U.S. Supreme Court Clarifies Title VII’s “Undue Hardship” Standard for Accommodating an Employee’s Religious Beliefs

Sep 12, 2023 | Written by: Noel A. Lesica, Esq. |

Our nation’s highest court recently decided an important case addressing an employer’s obligation to accommodate an employee’s religious practices under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  A unanimous Supreme Court decided the case, Groff v. DeJoy, Postmaster General, 600 U.S. __ (2023), on June 29, 2023, reviving discrimination claims that the Third Circuit dismissed as a matter of law.

Title VII requires covered employers to grant an employee’s requested accommodation of the employee’s religious practice unless doing so would create an “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.”  42 U.S.C. § 2000e(j) (emphasis added).  Since the 1970s, based on their understanding of precedential opinions on the topic, many courts interpreted “undue hardship” as anything more than a “de minimis” cost or effort.  Thus, if an employer could show that an employee’s requested accommodation would have more than a “de minimis” impact on the workplace, some courts found the employer could deny the request without running afoul of Title VII.  Considering that Webster’s Dictionary defines “de minimis” as something “so minor as to merit disregard,” applying that standard made it easier for an employer to deny a requested accommodation.  In Groff, the Supreme Court clarified what it concluded was a continuing misapplication of the relevant standard, sending a message to employers that “undue hardship” remains the standard by which accommodation requests must be evaluated and decided, and that it requires more than a “de minimis” impact on the business.

The facts of the case were straightforward.  Gerold Groff, described as an Evangelical Christian who believes that Sunday is a day reserved for worship and rest, delivered mail for the United States Postal Service (“USPS”) in a position that generally did not require Sunday work.  However, when the USPS began making deliveries for Amazon, that changed, and employees were required to work on any of the seven days in the week.  To avoid working on Sundays, Groff transferred to a rural location that did not deliver mail that day.  When even that location changed its policy and commenced Sunday mail delivery, the USPS assigned Groff’s work to other employees and began imposing progressive discipline on Groff based on his refusal to work on Sundays for religious reasons.  Groff eventually resigned and filed suit, claiming the USPS violated Title VII by not accommodating his religious practice.  More specifically, Groff claimed that the business of the USPS would suffer no “undue hardship” by accommodating his request.

The District Court dismissed Groff’s claims on summary judgment and the Third Circuit affirmed.  In concluding that no accommodation was necessary, the Third Circuit relied on a Supreme Court case from 1977, Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977), involving a religious accommodation request by a Trans World Airlines (“TWA”) employee who worked for a department that operated “24/7” to provide necessary parts to maintain TWA’s aircraft.  During his employment, Hardison “underwent a religious conversion,” after which he began regularly observing the Sabbath from sunset on Friday through sunset on Saturday.  The employee’s Sabbath observance conflicted with his work schedule, and eventually TWA terminated Hardison for insubordination.

TWA argued that accommodating Hardison’s requested schedule change meant other employees would have to cover his shift, which would have impacted those employees’ seniority rights under the applicable collective bargaining agreement.  “The Court found that not enough co-workers were willing to take Hardison’s shift voluntarily, that compelling them to do so would have violated their seniority rights, and that leaving the. . . [d]epartment short-handed would have adversely affected its ‘essential’ mission.”  Groff at 10 (citing Hardison at 68, 80).  

The concern about violating seniority rights was a major factor in the Court’s 1977 decision, and the subject of “undue hardship” received “little space” in the parties’ briefing and at oral argument.  However, the Court’s 1977 opinion contained a sentence upon which many courts relied for the next 50 years.  The Court concluded that requiring TWA “to bear more than a de minimis cost in order to give Hardison Saturdays off is an undue hardship.”  Id. at 11 (citing Hardison at 84). 

In Groff, the Supreme Court explained that “many lower courts” effectively misinterpreted that single statement as the definitive standard for what “undue hardship” means.  Courts overlooked EEOC regulations interpreting the phrase, seizing instead upon this one-line definition from Hardison – a case that failed to clarify what “undue hardship” means when seniority rights are not involved.

The Court prefaced its opinion by observing that “this case presents our first opportunity in nearly 50 years to explain the contours of Hardison.”  After analyzing the history of the applicable legislation and decisions rendered post-Hardison, the Supreme Court clarified that “undue hardship” means “a burden [that] is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business.”  Groff at 15-16.  The Court reasoned that the word “hardship” alone connotes something “more severe than a mere burden.”  Id. at 16. 

In explaining what undue hardship means, the Court made clear that a coworker’s dislike of a particular religious practice or religion in general cannot factor into the analysis. Id. at 20.  Further, when an employer determines whether a particular accommodation is reasonable, the Court instructed that an employer should consider “other options” before concluding, for example, that requiring other employees to work overtime creates an undue hardship on the business.  Id. at 20.  As with many employment issues, application of the standard in a particular situation is a fact-intensive inquiry requiring careful analysis. 

If you need help navigating an employee’s request for an accommodation for a religious practice, or any other employment law issue affecting your business, the employment law attorneys at Gebhardt & Kiefer can help. 

Noel A. Lesica 

Noel A. Lesica, Esq. focuses her practice on labor and employment and general litigation.  She has experience in virtually all aspects of employment law, including investigating and addressing claims involving sexual and other forms of unlawful harassment and discrimination, retaliatory practices, wage and hour violations, pay equity violations, leave entitlements under federal, state and local law, and restrictive covenants.  In Chancery Court, Ms. Lesica litigates contested trust and estate matters and represents family members and loved ones in guardianship proceedings.  She also helps clients in municipal court matters ranging from citizen complaints to traffic offenses, including charges of driving under the influence. 

If you have a suggestion for a future blog topic, please feel free to submit it via the Contact Us form.

Any statements made herein are solely for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon or construed as legal advice.