As we previously reported, The Supreme Court concluded on June 29, 2023 in a majority decision that an employer cannot refuse a religious accommodation under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act unless it can demonstrate that doing so “would result in substantial increase in costs” to the company.
Workers with religious objections to vaccine mandates now have stronger legal claims in light of this new precedent. The same standard, namely “substantial costs” to employers, will apply to cases where employees refused vaccination mandates on faith-based grounds. While the exemption is different- vaccines vs. workdays, undue hardship will be evaluated against this latest Supreme Court decision.
Following this new ruling, the interpretation that stands is that Title VII requires an employer denying a religious accommodation to show that the burden of granting it “would result in substantial increase in costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.”
“The freedom for individuals to openly and devoutly practice their chosen religion, even within their professional lives, is crucial. Therefore, the significance of religious exemptions in the workplace is paramount and should extend to individuals who choose to practice their faith during times of crisis” said Attorney Gilbert Orsini, an associate at Wilt Toikka Kraft LLP.
Some of the issues that may be considered as potential cost considerations will be countersuits brought, for instance, by immunocompromised individuals, or family members of such individuals. Granting religious exemption could expose employers to this liability by perceived, or actual, increased infection of COVID-19 proven (or thought) to be due to non-vaccinated employees. These suits could conceivably be brought by anyone in contact with the non-vaccinated employees. The same contentious debate could be made for masking in the workplace, if exemption had been given or not.
Medical experts selected by employment lawyers, could bring expertise to bear on these matters which would contribute to a definitive standard for the “substantial cost” bar. However, given the interpretation by the Supreme Court justices, each case will most likely be decided on its individual merits. While the Groff case makes clear that allowing an employee to opt out of Sunday attendance does not create undue hardship, the specific potential costs of unvaccinated employees will be a factor in how this reinterpreted verdict will be applied in vaccination exemption cases.
If you submitted a religious exemption claim for the covid vaccination, please contact the experienced Washington, DC employment lawyers at our firm for a free case intake assessment.