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Gerald Groff

Jewish organizations are cheering last week’s Supreme Court decision in Groff v. DeJoy, which expanded employee entitlement to workplace accommodations based on religious beliefs. The decision is a win for religious workers but creates a much tougher reality for employers. The OU, NCYI, COLPA, and the AJC were among those lauding the unanimous decision in a rare (and refreshing) show of common cause with other faith groups in the U.S. whom they had joined in submitting amicus briefs supporting the plaintiff in this significant case.

At issue is what constitutes an “undue hardship” on an employer under Title VII of the Civil Rights Law, which prohibits religious discrimination in the workplace and requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees based on religious beliefs. Since the 1977 Supreme Court decision in Trans World Airways, Inc. v. Hardison, courts have applied a “more than a de minimis cost” test in religious accommodation cases. This led employers to making small religious accommodations, but to routinely rejecting accommodations that would place anything more than a negligible burden on their business.


In Groff, however, the Supreme Court has now rejected that interpretation of Hardison and instead made clear that to reject an employee’s request for accommodation, an employer must show that granting it would result in “substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.” The Court, in an opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, stressed that this analysis is context-specific and should take into account how the particular accommodation would affect the particular business in light of its size, nature, and operating costs.

Impact on or dissatisfaction on the part of fellow employees is not, the Court noted, sufficient grounds for denial unless that effect would result in substantial costs to the business itself. Moreover, if it determines that an employee’s requested accommodation would constitute an undue hardship, an employer must consider possible alternative accommodations as well.

In Groff, the plaintiff, a Christian postal worker in Pennsylvania, had requested Sundays off to observe his Sabbath. The U.S. Postal Service initially allowed him to avoid Sunday shifts, but ceased that accommodation due to staffing shortages, which were exacerbated after Amazon contracted USPS to deliver their packages in 2013 and Quarryville, Penn., where Groff was an employee, became an important delivery hub. Groff subsequently resigned and brought a lawsuit; he did not prevail. Ironically, as his case now returns to the Third Circuit for redetermination under the new standard, the result might be the same – experts say the Postal Service’s efforts and alleged hardship in meeting Groff’s request (things were so tight that the local postmaster took to delivering some mail himself) could satisfy even the “substantial cost” test.

The difference between a de minimis cost and a substantial one is itself substantial. While the Court could have perhaps drawn the line somewhere in the middle – where a standard like “moderate” could be used to weigh the burden of a religious worker’s request – it instead took a marked leap forward in adopting a standard much more accommodating to employees and restrictive toward employers. The landscape is now ripe for future cases, some of which will end up in the Supreme Court, to refine the parameters of the new standard. One sure result of Groff: an uptick in religious accommodation lawsuits.

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Ziona Greenwald, a contributing editor to The Jewish Press, is a freelance writer and editor and the author of two children's books, “Kalman's Big Questions” and “Tzippi Inside/Out.” She lives with her family in Jerusalem.