News just in from the Supreme Court: Religion, Reasonable Accommodations, and the Substantial Increased Cost Standard

With so much happening during the recent, controversial SCOTUS term, you may have missed it, but the standards for religious accommodations in the workplace just saw their most major shift since 1977.

The tangled web of Covid-19, vaccination mandates, and exemptions from those mandates continue to unravel as the country’s response to the virus evolves and changes. In fact, these changes have resulted from a nationwide reevaluation of employee rights concerning vaccine mandates, most noticeably being played out in the nation’s courts and the culture at large.

Religious protections under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act

Foremost in the discussion is the question of a ‘religious exemption’ to the mandate, where an employee’s religious beliefs do not permit them to receive the vaccination. As well-reported in the news, thousands of Americans lost their jobs after refusing to be vaccinated. For some of those workers, their religious beliefs prompted their refusal. These individuals were forced to choose between their convictions and their livelihood.

Under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, an individual may not be discriminated against based on religion. Further, “[t]he term’ religion’ includes all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief, unless an employer demonstrates that he is unable to reasonably accommodate to an employee’s or prospective employee’s religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.”

Since the 1977 decision, Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, the Supreme Court of the United States has held that “undue hardship” meant anything more than a de minimis (trifling or insignificant) cost to the employer.

The Supreme Court’s new decision

On June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court revisited this standard. It issued its decision in Groff v. DeJoy, ruling unanimously that an employee must be afforded a ‘reasonable accommodation’ based on his or her religious beliefs where accommodating that individual would not result in “substantial increased costs” to the employer. This decision represents a markedly higher burden for employers than the previous “de minimis” standard.

However, the Court also emphasized that what constitutes “substantial increased costs” can only be determined on a case-by-case basis by the lower courts. Those lower courts are now tasked with applying what the Court defined as “our clarified context-specific standard.”

So, while the legal standard concerning these cases has been clarified, the results of the Groff decision may vary dramatically depending on the facts of the case at hand.

What does this mean for those penalized for not getting vaccinated due to religious beliefs?

Finally, while not specifically a vaccine mandate case, the Groff decision will affect all cases turning on a request for a ‘reasonable accommodation’ based on a person’s religion, including those arising from the Covid-19 vaccine mandates. With that in mind, this decision could have far-reaching implications for pending and future litigation.

What do you need to know moving forward?

Employers should be aware of the heightened burden they will face when justifying denying an employee’s request for a reasonable accommodation based on their religious beliefs. Conversely, employees should remember that the Court’s clarification of the law does not guarantee that every request from now on will be granted. If the employer can demonstrate that granting the accommodation will result in substantially increased costs, the employer can deny the request. At that point, the employee will have to decide whether continuing in their employment without the accommodation is something they are willing to accept.

If you’ve faced religious discrimination at work, the team at Danny Grace, PLLC, can help. Get in touch for a free case evaluation, and learn whether the new Supreme Court decision will affect your situation.

About Danny Grace PLLC

Founded in 2012, Danny Grace PLLC is a boutique employment litigation and immigration practice located in downtown Manhattan, New York, but offering services nationwide to its clients. We have built an extensive immigration practice specializing in visas, permanent residence (green cards), and corporate immigration. Our principal, Mr. Daniel Grace, is a top-rated immigration attorney in the state of New York.

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