Supreme Court Changes Standard in Religious Discrimination Claims

New Jersey employment laws prohibit employers from discriminating against employees and job applicants on the basis of religion. At both the state and federal levels, laws dealing with religious discrimination in employment have two components. First, employers may not make adverse decisions or take adverse actions based solely or primarily on an individual’s religious beliefs, practices, or identity. Second, employers must make reasonable accommodations for employee’s religious practices, as long as doing so does not impose an “undue hardship” on them. The U.S. Supreme Court recently revisited the current standard, established in 1977, for determining what constitutes an undue hardship for religious accommodations. The court’s June 2023 decision in Groff v. Dejoy places a greater burden on employers to demonstrate undue hardship. This potentially grants greater rights to employees with religious obligations.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 defines “religion” to include “all aspects of religious observance and practice.” It requires employers to “reasonably accommodate” employees’ religious observances or practices, with an exception for “undue hardship” to the employer. The statute does not define this term.

In 1977, the Supreme Court addressed the meaning of the term in Trans World Airlines v. Hardison. It held that anything “more than a de minimis cost” would pose an undue hardship for the employer. This effectively means that anything beyond an insignificant cost to the employer would be excused under Title VII.

The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) also requires reasonable accommodations for religious practices and observances. It allows an exception for undue hardship and provides a more precise definition of the term. An accommodation poses an undue hardship under the NJLAD if:
– It is unreasonably expensive or difficult;
– It interferes with business operations;
– It violates a seniority system or collective bargaining agreement; or
– It causes an employee to be unable “to perform the essential functions of” their job.

The plaintiff in Groff worked for the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) as a rural letter carrier. His religious beliefs mandated that he not work on Sundays. The station where he worked began doing Sunday deliveries under a contract with a major online retailer. He made an agreement with his employer that allowed him not to work on Sundays provided he covered other shifts during the week. As the volume of Sunday deliveries increased, however, the employer claimed that covering the plaintiff’s shifts on those days became a greater burden. The plaintiff eventually resigned and filed suit for disparate treatment and failure to accommodate his religion.

The Supreme Court mostly affirmed Hardison, with the exception of the de minimis standard for undue hardship. A unanimous court rejected both parties’ arguments for what to do with the undue burden standard. The USPS asked the court to keep the standard as is. The plaintiff asked it to apply the “significant difficulty or expense” standard used to evaluate reasonable accommodation requests under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Instead, the court ruled that an employer has the burden of demonstrating that the burden of a requested accommodation is “substantial in the overall context of [their] business.”

Employers could be liable for damages if they violate workers’ rights under state or federal law. If you believe that your employer has engaged in unlawful practices, an experienced and skilled employment attorney can help you assert your rights. The Resnick Law Group advocates for workers in New Jersey and New York in a wide range of employment claims. To schedule a confidential consultation to see how we can assist you, please contact us today online, at 973-781-1204, or at 646-867-7997.

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