Supreme Court Heightens Burden on Employers to Afford Religious Accommodations

July 19, 2023

On June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court clarified the standard for evaluating whether a religious accommodation creates an undue hardship under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII requires employers to accommodate employees’ religious needs, but employers may lawfully deny accommodations that create an “undue hardship.”

In Groff v. DeJoy, the Supreme Court held that “undue hardship” means what it says, requiring a showing of a substantial burden in the overall context of an employer’s business. The Court rejected an earlier interpretation of “undue hardship” that allowed employers to deny accommodation that required more than a “de minimis” cost. This newly clarified standard heightens the showing necessary to deny a religious accommodation request. The good news is that many employers, especially in Massachusetts, have already been applying a more liberal (i.e., employee-friendly) test than de minimis cost, and the Supreme Court’s newly articulated standard should have little practical effect on their approach to religious accommodation requests.



Gerald Groff began working for the United States Postal Service (“USPS”) in 2012. He believed that Sundays should be reserved for rest, acts of worship, and devotion. In 2013, USPS entered into an agreement with Amazon to extend parcel service to Sundays. In 2016, USPS reached a memorandum of understanding with the relevant union about how Sunday and holiday parcel delivery would be handled. Groff refused to work on Sundays, causing his delivery duties to be performed by others. USPS issued progressive discipline until Groff’s resignation in 2019. Groff sued under Title VII, claiming that the USPS failed to provide religious accommodation.

The District Court and Third Circuit both held that Groff’s request for Sundays off was properly denied, as there was more than a de minimis burden in requiring other employees to work schedules that conflicted with their collectively bargained rights. These courts relied on the earlier Supreme Court case of Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, where, under similar circumstances, the Supreme Court stated that “[t]o require” an employer “to bear more than a de minimis cost in order to” provide the accommodation “is an undue hardship.”

In Groff, the Supreme Court explained that the de minimis language in Hardison had been viewed by many lower courts as the authoritative interpretation of the statutory term “undue hardship,” but that it is “doubtful that it was meant to take on that large role,” noting that the Hardison Court had also referred to substantial expenditures/additional costs. The Court also referred to the dictionary definitions of “undue” and “hardship” in determining that the governing standard required a showing of a substantial burden.

Significantly, the Court agreed with Hardison that a violation of established seniority rights could constitute an undue hardship even under the clarified standard.  The Court remanded the case to the lower courts to evaluate whether there were other possible accommodations, explaining that the de minimis standard may have led the courts to dismiss other possibilities, such as incentive pay or coordination with other nearby stations.


Practical Considerations

Although the prior standard referred to a “de minimis” burden, many employers considered the overall effect of accommodation requests and treated them more expansively. The Groff case reinforces that employers need to provide accommodations even when there are costs involved.

Drawing the line between a substantial burden and a less-than-substantial burden will be the subject of future litigation. There are some principles, however, that can guide employers. As before, accommodations are generally unreasonable if they violate established seniority rights. In dealing with requests for time off, an employer should explore the feasibility of voluntary swaps. If voluntary swaps do not fully accommodate the employee, an employer should evaluate whether there are other possible options, including overtime and incentive pay. Any added costs need to be evaluated in the context of an individual employer’s business to determine if those costs impose a substantial burden for that employer.

Generally, employers should take a holistic approach, considering all factors that may be associated with a request for accommodation and the impact the accommodation may have on coworkers and the overall business. Employers should avoid the temptation to stop after they have determined that a requested accommodation would impose an undue hardship. Instead, employers should affirmatively explore other options. As the Court noted in Groff, “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 or accommodations.”

Overall, the Court’s decision highlights the need for an interactive discussion with employees to evaluate accommodation options and determine the impact that granting a request for religious accommodation will have on an employer’s business. An employer that is quick to deny a request without considering other options is placing itself at unnecessary risk.


Special Considerations for Massachusetts Employers

Massachusetts employers also need to comply with the religious accommodation requirements under Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 151B, the state law prohibiting employment discrimination. Chapter 151B expressly recognizes that an undue hardship, in the case of time off, can be established by a showing that an employee’s absence unduly compromises the health or safety of the public or where an employee’s presence is necessary for the orderly transaction of business (and the employee’s work cannot be performed by other employees) or to alleviate an emergency. Massachusetts generally looks to federal law in interpreting analogous state law. While there are some differences between the religious accommodation principles under Title VII and Chapter 151B, it is likely that Massachusetts courts will take into consideration the substantial burden approach in construing Massachusetts law.

For questions about religious accommodation law, please reach out to Kenneth W. Prince (, Laurie F. Rubin (, Daniel S. Tarlow (,  or other members of Prince Lobel’s Employment Law Practice Group.

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