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United States Supreme Court Clarifies Appropriate Standard for Reasonable Accommodations for Religious Observance

In Groff v. DeJoy, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified the appropriate standard for courts and employers to utilize when assessing employee requests for reasonable accommodations for religious observance.  Since 1972, employers have been required to provide reasonable accommodations for the sincerely held religious beliefs or observances of employees unless there was an “undue hardship” to the employer.  In 1977, the Court in Hardison v. TWA stated that “undue hardship” meant anything “more than a de minimis cost to the employer” which became the standard utilized by the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) and employers since that time.  Now, the United States Supreme Court has clarified that an “undue hardship” is shown only when “a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business.”  The Court emphasized that this is a “fact-specific inquiry.”

In its decision, the Court provided guidance regarding how employers should assess what constitutes a “substantial increased cost.” In the past, anything more than a minimal increased cost constituted sufficient basis for an employer to deny an employee’s request for a reasonable accommodation.  Now, employers may only deny requests for reasonable accommodations for religious observance where an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs.  Employers must consider several factors, “including the particular accommodation at issue and their practical impact in light of the nature, size and operating costs of an employer.”  Not only is each request for a reasonable accommodation fact-specific to the employee, but different employers may be required to provide different accommodations based on their own operations.

Furthermore, the Court clarified that “a coworker’s dislike of ‘religious practice and expression in the workplace’ or ‘the mere fact [of] an accommodation’ is not ‘cognizable to factor into the undue hardship inquiry.’”  For example, an employer may not deny an employee request for a reasonable accommodation if a reason for denying such a request is that other coworkers may feel animosity toward that employee’s religious observance.

Finally, the Court highlighted that “Title VII requires that an employer reasonably accommodate an employee’s practice of religion, not merely that it assess the reasonableness of a particular possible accommodation.” For example, when an employer is faced with a request for a reasonable accommodation for Sabbath observance, “it would not be enough for an employer to conclude that forcing other employees to work overtime would constitute an undue hardship.  Consideration of other options, such as voluntary shift swapping, would also be necessary.”

Based on the foregoing, employers should review their existing written policies and procedures as well as educating managers and HR professional regarding the new practical standard. Furthermore, while not explicit in the opinion, the Court appears to emphasize the importance of the interactive process for employers to ascertain the nature of the employee’s religious observance or practice and communicate with the employee to determine if a reasonable accommodation can be provided.

Kane Kessler has extensive experience with restrictive covenants, including non-compete agreements. If you have any questions, please contact Kane Kessler’s Labor & Employment Practice Group, Jeffrey G. Douglas at 212 519-5183, or jdouglas@kanekessler.comValerie K. Ferrier at 212 519-5107, vferrier@kanekessler.com, or Kane Kessler’s Litigation Practice Group, Dana M. Susman at dsussman@kanekessler.com or Jonathan M. Sabin, at jsabin@kanekessler.com.

This memo is provided for informational purposes only. It is not intended as legal advice and readers should consult counsel to discuss how these matters relate to their individual circumstances.