On June 29, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court changed the long-standing standard for the accommodation of an employee’s religious beliefs and practices in the workplace in its decision, Groff v. DeJoy, a case involving a U.S. Postal Service employee, who requested a schedule that did not require him to work on Sundays, as an accommodation of his religion. This Legal Update provides an overview of religious accommodations in the workplace under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1965 (“Title VII”) and the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act (“WFEA”).
Both Title VII and the WFEA prohibit employers (except religious organizations) from discriminating against applicants and employees in hiring, firing, and other terms and conditions of employment based on religion. Essentially, if an employee has a sincerely held religious belief or practice that conflicts in some way with the requirements of their employment, the employer is required to provide the employee with a reasonable accommodation unless the employer can demonstrate that the accommodation would pose an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business.
What Qualifies as “Sincerely Held Religious Belief”?
Under Title VII and the WFEA, “religion” is broadly defined. Title VII refers to religion as including “all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief.” Similarly, under the WFEA, the term “creed” is defined as “a system of religious beliefs, including moral or ethical beliefs about right and wrong, that are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.”
Sincerely held religious beliefs can encompass nontraditional forms of religion and non-theistic moral and ethical beliefs, including Atheism.
What is Reasonable Accommodation?
A reasonable accommodation is a solution that eliminates the conflict between the employee’s religious beliefs and practices and the employee’s work requirements.
Common examples of reasonable accommodations include:
- Modification of work schedules to allow employees to observe their religious practices.
- Religious expression or proselytizing, unless it is harassing to other employees.
- Making exceptions to a dress code policy to permit employees to wear religious attire or symbols.
- Providing prayer spaces or quiet areas for employees to practice their faith.
- Granting time off for religious holidays or observances.
- Modification of workplace practices, policies, or procedures.
Religious accommodation requirements do not apply to an employee’s political beliefs or personal preferences not linked to a religious belief.
Demonstrating Undue Hardship
While employers must accommodate their employees sincerely held religious beliefs or practices, employers are not required to do so if accommodation would create an undue hardship.
An undue hardship is created when the burden of granting accommodation would result in “substantially increased costs to the conduct of its particular business” operations. Some accommodations that could pose an undue hardship on an employer include accommodations that violate seniority systems, allow employees to impose their religious beliefs in a manner that discriminates against or harasses other employees, or violate safety or security risks. However, dislike of religious practices, customer or co-worker reactions, or biases concerning an employee’s or applicant’s religion do not constitute undue hardship.
Whether an accommodation would constitute an undue hardship is determined on a case-by-case basis, considering factors such as the nature of the work, the cost of the accommodation, and the impact on the employer’s business operations.
Prior to June 2023,an employer was not obligated to grant an employee’s request for an accommodation of the employee’s religion if the accommodation imposed more than a “de minimus cost” on the employer. In practice, this meant that many requested accommodations were legitimately denied. However, in its recent decision in Groff v. DeJoy, the U.S. Supreme Court replaced the “de minimus” standard with a new standard. Now, employers may only deny a request for a religious accommodation in the workplace if it resulted in “substantially increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.”
The Importance of Collaborative Communication
Generally, an applicant or employee is responsible for notifying the employer of their need for a religious accommodation. However, when an employer suspects an applicant or employee has a conflict between their religious practice or beliefs and the work requirements, the employer should discuss the potential conflict and possible accommodations. Open communication can help identify workable solutions that minimize burdens on both parties. It may also help the employer to avoid costly litigation.
Providing religious accommodations can be beneficial for both employers and employees. Employees can be free to practice their faith without compromising their careers, and employers can foster a diverse and inclusive workplace culture.