June 29, 2023

SCOTUS Rules on Title VII’s Reasonable Accommodation for Religion

You may have read the story on January 13th, addressing the U.S. Supreme Court’s pending decision regarding an employer’s obligation to provide a reasonable accommodation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for an employee’s sincerely held religious belief or observance.

Title VII provides that an accommodation is not reasonable if it imposes “a hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” What if the hardship is imposed on coworkers who have to cover that employee’s work or shift, disrupts the workplace and workflow, and diminishes employee morale?  Is that a hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business?

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court held, “Title VII requires an employer that denies a religious accommodation to show that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.”

This led me to wonder, does the word “costs” refer solely to monetary costs or does it also include indirect costs like those described above (hardship on coworkers, costs of diminished morale) or administrative costs in staffing, scheduling, and more?

The Court wrote, “Faced with an accommodation request… 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…Today’s clarification may prompt little, if any, change in the [EEOC]’s guidance explaining why no undue hardship is imposed by temporary costs, voluntary shift swapping, occasional shift swapping, or administrative costs.” (emphasis added)

The Court also held that the extent of the hardship must be more than “de minimis” writing, “’undue hardship’ is shown when a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business.”

Stay tuned. The case is now remanded to the lower court to re-issue its determination as to whether the employer’s hardship, described above, meets this new standard. In the interim, talk to your company’s legal counsel, review your related policies on reasonable accommodation to determine if any changes are needed in those or your related practices.