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  • Writer's picturePaul Peter Nicolai

Supreme Court Adopts Heightened Undue Hardship Standard in Title VII Religious Accommodation

Updated: Aug 16, 2023

Employers must modify their practices when evaluating requests for religious accommodations under Title VII. Undue hardship is no longer the low threshold of a de minimis cost to an employer. Instead, the US Supreme Court has ruled that an undue hardship for evaluating a religious accommodation request means substantially increased costs for conducting its particular business. This ruling upended almost 50 years of Title VII cases.


With the Court’s adoption of a heightened standard for undue hardship, employers will have a more difficult time denying a request based on undue hardship. They will have to modify their practices accordingly.


Before this ruling, courts interpreted undue hardship under Title VII as requiring more than minimal cost or burden on the employer, a lower standard than under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which required a significant difficulty or expense.


The New Case

An Evangelical Christian worked for the USPS. He believed Sundays should be devoted to worship and rest per his religion. When he first began working for USPS, his position generally did not involve Sunday work. That later changed. He was expected to work Sundays. He requested he be excused from working on Sundays as a form of religious accommodation, a request the USPS denied for undue hardship. Despite the denial, he was unwilling to work on Sundays due to his religious beliefs. He continued to receive progressive discipline for his failure to do so. He ultimately resigned from his employment with USPS.


He sued USPS under Title VII, alleging USPS could have accommodated his Sunday Sabbath practice without undue hardship on the conduct of its business. Applying the de minimis standard, the district court found in favor of USPS, and the Appeals Court affirmed. The Appeals Court felt bound by precedent, which it interpreted as creating a low threshold— something more than a de minimis cost—for proving undue hardship.


The Court discussed the historical development of Title VII and EEOC regulations leading up to the prior decision. It noted that a single sentence in the old opinion became the authoritative interpretation of undue hardship for many lower courts. The Court did not believe this sentence should have this significant role and observed that the prior decision described the proper governing standard three separate times - an accommodation is not required when it entails substantial costs or expenditures.


Opining that the prior decision could not be reduced to one phrase, the Court held that showing more than a de minimis cost does not suffice to establish undue hardship under Title VII. Undue hardship is when a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business.


The Court concluded by setting out essential considerations for the undue hardship analysis moving forward.

  • Although an accommodation’s impact on coworkers may be relevant, it is not determinative.

  • Bias or hostility to a religious practice or religious accommodation cannot serve as the justification for finding undue hardship.

  • It is not enough for an employer to assess the reasonableness of a particular requested religious accommodation. The employer also must consider other possible accommodations that would not pose an undue hardship.

Implications

Requests for religious accommodations must be evaluated using the heightened standard. Accommodations denied before may need to be accommodated now.


The Court’s opinion hinted at some acceptable approaches.

  • The Court said it had no reservations in saying that a good deal of the EEOC’s guidance in this area is sensible and will be unaffected by the decision.

  • Employers should evaluate a religious accommodation request under the clarified standard of whether the burden of granting an accommodation would substantially increase costs for conducting its particular business.

Employers should be aware that although they carry a higher burden in establishing undue hardship, the guidance on evaluating the sincerity of an employee’s religious belief underlying the accommodation request has not changed. As before, only if the employer has a bona fide doubt about the underlying basis for the accommodation request may it make a limited inquiry into the facts and circumstances of the employee’s claim that the belief or practice is religious and sincerely held and therefore requires an accommodation.


Employers should take the following actions to ensure compliance under Title VII:

  • Review current accommodation policies and procedures to ensure religious accommodation requests use the new clarified standard to evaluate undue hardship.

  • Train those reviewing requests for accommodation on the appropriate standard to evaluate requests. Consider standardizing and centralizing the process for reviewing religious and disability accommodation requests to ensure each request is evaluated per applicable law and by trained personnel.

  • When evaluating religious accommodation requests for undue hardship, consider all relevant factors and the practical impact of the accommodation given the business’s nature, size, operating cost, and other potential reasonable accommodations before making an undue hardship determination.

It is unclear how the decision may impact religious accommodations under state and local anti-discrimination laws since many look to cases under Title VII for guidance. While prior precedent under state law likely will remain intact, states and localities may adopt regulatory changes. Employers should monitor developments at the state and local levels.


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