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Recent Supreme Court Decision Means a Broader Application of Religious Exemption in Employment Cases

One of the tenets of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 mandates that no employer discriminate against an employee on the basis of religion. Religion, in this context, is defined as: 

     “All aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief, unless an employer demonstrates that he is unable to reasonably accommodate an employee’s or prospective employee’s religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” 

     Until the recent decision Groff v DeJoy, undue hardship had been interpreted to mean anything more substantial than a de minimus impact as being sufficient to deny accommodation. However, the opinions in this latest case have, essentially raised the standard to: 

     “Title VII requires an employer that denies a religious accommodation to show that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.” 

     At issue in Groff v DeJoy (Postmaster General) was a religious exemption request by the plaintiff that he not be required to work on Sundays. Groff, an Evangelical Christian, believes that Sundays should be set aside for worship and rest, according to his faith. Groff started working for the U.S. Postal Service in 2012, but he was fired in 2019 after being penalized for refusing to go to work on Sundays. 

     Trans World Airlines v. Hardison, a 1977 ruling on the definition of the “undue hardship” clause, had been recommended to be overturned by Groff. Instead, Groff stated the judges should rule that businesses are required to respect their workers’ religious beliefs unless doing so would be extremely difficult and expensive. The justices declined to change their earlier decision or adopt that high criterion, but they did remand Groff’s case to the lower court for further consideration in accordance with the criteria they laid forth on Thursday. 

     Also reinterpreted in this decision is the application of the Establishment Cause. Prior to this decision, the Supreme Court had ruled that any allowances for the observance of the Sabbath in cases like these violated the Establishment Clause because they were believed to favor a particular religion, but this recent opinion has nullified that application of the establishment clause. 

     Additionally, since the decision, other cases brought by employment lawyers have already begun to be re-evaluated under the new standard. In this new landscape, among other typical business needs and expense impact, courts will have to weigh potential liability of allowing religious exemptions for employees and justify that it meets the undue hardship standard. 

     For instance, on July 31, 2023, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals remanded a case back to a Federal District Court. The case is a religious discrimination case brought by a Christian teacher who refused to use the names and pronouns that transgender children preferred. 

     The case emphasizes the tension between discrimination against LGBTQ+ people and discrimination based on religion in the face of evolving and occasionally conflicting legal standards and guidelines, including the heightened standard for undue hardship for religious accommodations set by the Supreme Court. 

     The outcome of the case may provide insight into whether accommodating a teacher’s reluctance to use students’ names and pronouns would constitute undue hardship given the alleged harm to transgender pupils and disruption to the classroom environment. 

     The court decision could also re-adjudicate whether the school’s claim of undue hardship is sufficiently strong given the asserted harm and cost of transgender students’ possible Title IX complaints. 

     Given the increased burden of proof for employers, this verdict may be applicable to other cases involving termination based on COVID vaccine refusal. In instances where employees invoked their religious affiliation as the basis for their refusal, this precedent would need to be weighed as a factor in the evaluation of whether terminations were legal, retroactively. 

     We will continue to update this page with more information as it develops. Consultation with an employment lawyer is vital given the rapidly shifting legal landscape of religious exemptions in employment decisions. Contact the experienced employment lawyers at our firm for a free intake assessment today.  

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