Ohio Employment Law: US Supreme Court makes it easier for employees to prove a right to accommodation of their religious beliefs

Many people have become familiar with the concept of “reasonable accommodation” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Basically, the law requires employers to “accommodate” the needs of a disabled employee if it can be done reasonably, and without causing an “undue hardship” to the employer.

Less well-known is the employer’s duty to accommodate the religious beliefs of its employees. This duty arises under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of such characteristics as race, color, sex, and religion.

The classic example of a religious accommodation case under Title VII is whether an employer must excuse an employee from working on their Sabbath day if their religion prohibits it. As in the case of the ADA, the law requires employers covered by the Act to reasonably accommodate the sincerely held religious beliefs of an employee if it can be done without causing an undue hardship for the employer.

But what constitutes an “undue hardship“? If providing an accommodation would cause some inconvenience, difficulty, or expense for an employer, how do we determine whether it is significant enough to be considered an “undue” hardship under the law? How much hardship is “too much”?

Recently, in a case called Groff v. DeJoy, the United States Supreme Court provided some guidance on this question. In doing so, it significantly increased the burden of proof employers must meet in order to show that a proposed accommodation of an employee’s beliefs would impose upon it an “undue hardship.”

Previously, the Court had suggested that any hardship that was more than “de minimis“ – meaning, “barely noticeable” – was enough to constitute an “undue” hardship in the context of a reasonable accommodation. This was a pretty low burden for employers to meet. In Groff, however, the Court held that the employer must meet a significantly higher burden. Specifically, employers must be able to show that a proposed accommodation would impose a burden that is “substantial,” such as by causing the employer to incur “substantially increased costs,” if it wanted to deny an accommodation on the basis of undue hardship. If it cannot show a “substantial“ hardship, then the employer must ordinarily accommodate the beliefs of the employee.

While the exact contours of this definition are still somewhat unclear, the Court is certainly saying an employer must now show much more than a “minimal” hardship in order to legally deny a requested accommodation of an employee’s religious beliefs.

Both employers and employees should be mindful of this new standard, and should seek competent employment counsel for guidance when these issues arise.