Religious accommodations in the workplace and heightened standard for employers
On June 29, 2023, the United States Supreme Court unanimously held in Groff v. DeJoy that under Title VII, which applies to employers with 15 or more employees, an employer denying a religious accommodation must show that the burden of granting such accommodation would be “substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business.” This ruling – largely a victory for the plaintiff, an evangelical Christian who declined to work Sundays – will likely make it easier for employees to obtain religious accommodations at work.
Generally, an employer can defend itself from an employee’s claim of failure to reasonably accommodate a religious practice by showing that the accommodation would be an “undue hardship.” Prior to Groff v. DeJoy, some lower courts interpreted “undue hardship” as meaning “more than a de minimis cost,” as articulated by the United States Supreme Court in its 1977 ruling in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison.
Groff v. DeJoy’s Heightened “Undue Burden” Standard
The United States Supreme Court has now explained that Hardison “cannot be reduced to its ‘de minimis’ language.” Per Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion in Groff v. DeJoy, under Title VII, employers must show that “granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of [an employer’s] particular business.” The Court further clarified that “a hardship that is attributable to employee animosity to a particular religion, to religion in general, or to the very notion of accommodating religious practice, cannot be considered ‘undue.’” This heightened standard may make it more difficult for employers to deny requests for religious accommodation. It may also change how states interpreting their own discrimination laws construe “undue hardship.”
How Groff v. DeJoy Impacts Washington Law
In 2014, the Washington State Supreme Court in Kumar v. Gate Gourmet, Inc. adopted the “more than a de minimis cost” language of Hardison in interpreting claims under the Washington Law Against Discrimination (“WLAD”), which applies to employers with 8 or more employees. Since then, the Washington State Supreme Court has accepted review of a case out of Division Three of the Washington Court of Appeals, Suarez v. State of Washington, in which the Court of Appeals ruled that an employer must establish that a religious accommodation would cause the employer “significant difficulty and expense.” The State appealed the ruling, arguing that this standard was more stringent than – and contrary to – the standard identified in Kumar and in Hardison. Karr Tuttle Campbell, on behalf of the Washington State Hospital Association, the Washington State Medical Association, and the American Medical Association, filed an amicus memorandum in support of the State’s petition for review.
The Washington State Supreme Court granted review, but subsequently stayed the proceedings pending the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Groff v. DeJoy because of the closely related issues. Now that the unanimous opinion has been released in Groff, the Washington State Supreme Court is expected to revisit the “more than a de minimis cost” standard as it applies to WLAD. If the Washington State Supreme Court adopts the Groff standard, under WLAD, employers will bear the burden of establishing that a religious accommodation would be “substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business.” Even small employers would be held to this heightened standard.
What This Means for Washington Employers
All Washington employers should anticipate an increase in religious accommodation requests and should prepare to meet this heightened standard for denying such requests.
Employers should contact their counsel for direction in specific cases, and may want to do the following:
- Re-evaluate policies on religious accommodations in light of Groff v. DeJoy.
- Re-train individuals involved in making decisions on religious accommodation requests.
- Carefully consider religious accommodation requests and analyze whether an employee’s religious accommodation request would result in “substantial increased costs” to the employer’s business.