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U.S. Supreme Court Clarifies Standard for Religious Accommodation Requests

in Education, News

As the new school year begins, school administrators should be aware of the Supreme Court’s recent decision related to religious accommodation requests. In Groff v. DeJoy, the Court clarified that denying such a request requires a showing of substantial – not minimal, as previously held – increases in cost for the employer. As a result, school districts may need to consider accommodating certain religious requests that could have been denied under previous legal standards.

Facts: For religious reasons, Mr. Groff, a United States Postal Service (USPS) employee, did not wish to work on Sundays, and specifically sought transfers to rural stations where Sunday deliveries were not required. However, after the USPS’s agreement with Amazon, even the rural station where Groff was employed began to require Sunday deliveries. Groff refused, and the USPS issued progressive discipline, after which he resigned ahead of expected termination. Groff then sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, alleging that accommodating his religious needs would not have resulted in undue hardship to the USPS.  The trial court held in the USPS’s favor and the Third Circuit affirmed.  Both courts relied on a legal standard allowing denials of religious accommodation requests if they pose an “undue hardship” by requiring the employer to bear more than a minimal cost.

Decision: The Supreme Court reversed the prior courts’ decisions.  The Court explained that the above standard resulted from a misinterpretation of a previous decision and clarified that undue hardship results only from substantial – not minimal – increased costs to the employer. The Court also emphasized that employers must consider other options to accommodate employees’ religious needs, not just the effects of the specific request at issue. For example, the USPS could have considered whether providing incentives to other employees would have resolved Groff’s concerns without causing undue hardship. Notably, the Court’s previous rulings on seniority-based bidding remain in place, meaning that Title VII does not require employers to disturb seniority-based bidding systems in accommodating religious employees. Finally, the Court reiterated that coworkers’ bias or hostility towards religious accommodations cannot result in undue hardship or serve as a defense to a reasonable accommodation claim.

Take Aways:

  • Before declining to reasonably accommodate religious employees, school districts will need to determine that such accommodations would result in a substantial increase in overall costs. Evaluating the availability of other reasonable alternatives will be a critical part of this analysis.
  • Although disrupting seniority-based bidding systems is not required to accommodate religious employees, school districts should assess whether the request can be accommodated without such interference.
  • The full effects of this ruling have yet to be seen and may be broader than suggested by the facts here. Due to uncertainty in this area of law, we recommend consulting with counsel in any situation where districts are considering denying a religious accommodation request.

Accommodating religious requests can require complex and nuanced analyses.  Weston Hurd education law attorneys are available to work with your district to offer legal guidance, as well as creative solutions.

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Weston Hurd LLP attorneys regularly assist school districts in all aspects of school law. For further information please contact Miriam Fair at mfair@westonhurd.com or any of the education law attorneys.