Supreme Court Rethinks Reasonable Accommodation of Religious Practices in Employment
The Supreme Court recently issued a decision that closely examines the facts and circumstances that would permit an employer to reject an employee’s request for a religious accommodation in the workplace. With the unanimous support of the Justices, the Court emphasized that a religious accommodation in the workplace can only be rejected when there is an “undue hardship” on the employer. While the foregoing is a well-established concept, by siding with the plaintiff-employee in this particular case, the Court signaled that the point at which a “hardship” becomes “undue” is higher than previous precedent suggests.
In this case, the USPS refused to accommodate the request of an evangelical Christian employee to not work on Sundays for religious reasons. The USPS claimed that such a scheduling request would negatively impact other workers who do not share the same faith, and progressively disciplined this employee for failing to show up for work on Sunday, until he resigned. Two lower courts sided with the USPS before this case made it to the Supreme Court. Those courts reasoned that the employee’s request negatively impacted coworkers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale – those considerations were enough to make the employer’s hardship “undue.”
The Supreme court reversed, finding that these hardships were not sufficient, and that substantial increased costs must be shown to rise to the level of “undue” hardship. The Court further suggested that consideration of other options, such as voluntary shift swapping, would also be necessary in these circumstances.
The immediate impact on employers is that the previously opaque set point for what makes an employer’s hardship undue in the context of religious accommodation is now clarified, and potentially set higher under federal law. The standard under New York state law remains that an employer may only reject an employee’s religious accommodation request after the employer demonstrates that it made a “bona fide effort” to accommodate the employee, and that it is unable to do so without “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” The concept of “undue hardship” under state law includes, but is not limited to, the employer’s “significant expense,” which may include direct costs as well as those costs related to lost productivity, hiring and transferring employees.
Please feel free to reach out with any questions to any member of our Education, Labor and Employment Law Practice Group at (518) 487-7600 – Beth Bourassa; Mackenzie Brennan, Erin Callahan, Norma Meacham, Kevin Quinn, Robert Schofield, or Katherine Wentworth-Ping.