The Impact of Groff v. Dejoy on Religious Accommodations and Seniority-Based Bidding Systems in the Workplace

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Groff v. DeJoy ruling, issued in June, has significant implications for employers’ handling of religious accommodations under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.[1] The decision establishes a more rigorous standard for employers to deny such accommodations, while preserving the unique protections afforded to seniority systems under Title VII.[2]

This ruling particularly resonates with employers who utilize seniority-based bidding systems, both unionized and non-unionized environments. Seniority-based bidding is a practice commonly used in workplaces, especially those with union representation, where shifts, assignments, or schedules are allocated based on an employee’s length of service or seniority.[3] However, as illustrated by Groff, these systems can clash with the need to accommodate employees’ religious rights.[4] Despite the Title VII protections granted to seniority systems, employers must still reasonably accommodate religious practices or other protected rights unless it causes “undue hardship” on the business.[5] The Groff decision clarifies that employers can no longer automatically rely on their seniority-based systems to deny religious accommodation requests.[6] Instead, they must assess each request individually and explore various options for accommodating religious beliefs, such as shift swapping, unpaid absences, or incentives for other employees to cover shift, all while respecting seniority rights.[7]

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination against employees based on religious beliefs unless accommodation would inflict undue hardship on business operations. Notably, seniority-based bidding systems enjoy statutory protection under Title VII.[8] This protection stems from Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison (1977), where the Supreme Court held that an employers and unions with seniority system aren’t required to deprive senior seniority employees of their rights in order to accommodate religious practices of junior employees.[9] From this decision, courts have begun interpreting the language in the opinion defining “undue hardship” as anything more than a de minimis cost.[10]

The Groff case arose from the Third Circuit, and the Supreme Court granted certiorari in January 2023.[11] In this case, a former United States Postal Service employee, sought religious accommodation regarding work on Sundays.[12] This employee brought action against the Postmaster General under Title VII, alleging that the Postal Service failed to make reasonable accommodations for his religious practices and disciplined him for failing to work on Sundays.[13] The Court held in a unanimous opinion that “to defend denial of a religious accommodation under Title VII, an employer must show that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.”[14]

The Court’s opinion establishes that “undue hardship” necessitates substantial increased costs, while also emphasizing that seniority rights cannot be individually sacrificed for religious needs.[15] Previously, the standard was a “de minimis” hardship requirement, now elevated to a “substantial increased costs justification.”[16] Employers should not assume their seniority-based bidding systems shield them from approving religious accommodation requests.[17] Post-Groff, employers must adhere to the new Title VII standard, demonstrating substantial cost increases related to their business operations before denying religious accommodations.[18]

The Groff decision reaffirms the need for a thorough assessment of religious accommodation requests and sets a higher threshold for employers to prove substantial increased costs as undue hardship.[19] This tailored approach could reshape how employers address religious accommodation requests in the future, especially in the context of seniority-based bidding systems.[20]

[1] Groff v. DeJoy, 143 S. Ct. 2279, *1 (2023).

[2] Molly Gabel & Nicolas A. Lussier, The Supreme Court and Seniority: What Groff v. DeJoy Means for Workplaces with Seniority-Based Bidding Systems, Seyfarth (July 5, 2023), [Hereinafter The Supreme Court and Seniority].

[3] Id.

[4] Groff v. DeJoy, 143 S. Ct. 2279, *1 (2023).

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] The Supreme Court and Seniority, Supra Note 2.

[9] Id., Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63, 97 S. Ct. 2264, 53 L. Ed. 2d 113 (1977).

[10] Id.

[11] Groff v. DeJoy, 143 S. Ct. 2279, *1 (2023).

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] The Supreme Court and Seniority, Supra Note 2.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.