When Can an Employer Stop a Religious Accommodation?

When Can an Employer Stop a Religious Accommodation?

In Kluge v. Brownsburg Community School Corp., the federal courts reviewed a school’s decision not to continue a requested religious accommodation. Brownsburg Community School defended its decision to revoke the “Last Names Only Accommodation” provided to a music teacher who argued that requiring him to call transgender students by their preferred first names violated his religious beliefs.

Background

Brownsburg hired John Kluge in August 2014 to serve as its only high school music teacher. In 2017, the administration at Brownsburg became aware that several transgender students were enrolled as freshmen. Kluge asked for a religious accommodation that allowed him to “address all students by their last names only, similar to a sports coach.” His request was granted.

Later the same year, when teachers and transgender students voiced concerns that Kluge’s accommodation was causing harm to students, the school discussed the issue with Kluge and told him that they could no longer offer the Last Names Only Accommodation. The teacher resigned and sued, alleging that the school failed to accommodate his religious beliefs.

Kluge brought claims under Title VII for religious discrimination/failure to accommodate. The district court determined that Kluge established a prima facie case of failure to accommodate a religious practice. The court noted that there were issues of fact as to whether his religious beliefs were sincerely held, but taking the record in the light most favorable to Kluge for the purposes of summary judgment, there was enough evidence that his refusal to use the preferred names and pronouns of the transgender students was a religious practice based on a sincerely held belief.

Appeal

When Kluge presented adequate evidence that his practice conflicted with an employment requirement and established a prima facie case of failure to accommodate, the burden then shifted to the school to demonstrate that it couldn’t reasonably accommodate Kluge "without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer's business."

The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit found that the school produced uncontradicted evidence that the teacher's last-names-only practice, which was based on his refusal to call all students by the names registered in the official student database, stigmatized transgender students and caused them demonstrable emotional harm, and the teacher was told that students reported feeling disrespected, targeted, isolated, and dehumanized. Moreover, the Court of Appeals said that the school had a legitimate interest in the mental health of its students, and an accommodation wasn’t reasonable.

The Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment against the teacher on his discrimination claim, as the school showed that, as a matter of law, his requested accommodation worked an undue burden on the school's educational mission by harming transgender students and negatively impacting the learning environment for transgender students, for other students in his classes, in the school at large, and for faculty.

Title VII doesn’t require that employers accommodate religious practices that create an undue hardship on the conduct of the employer's business, the Court said. As a result, a religious employee's practice may sometimes not be accommodated. Circuit Judge Ilana Rovner also noted that Title VII didn’t provide guidance for determining the degree of accommodation required of an employer. However, that was to change with a new Supreme Court decision.

The U.S. Supreme Court Decides Groff v. DeJoy

Before the mandate in Kluge I issued, the Supreme Court decided Groff v. DeJoy in 2023, in which it clarified the standard for undue hardship in Title VII religious accommodation cases. Formerly, it was an undue hardship to require an employer to accommodate an employee's religion, resulting in anything beyond a "de minimis cost." After Groff, the standard was clarified; now, it would be an undue hardship if granting the accommodation would result in "substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business."

In clarifying the standard, the Supreme Court emphasized that certain kinds of costs are irrelevant in evaluating undue hardship. For example, the Supreme Court explained that "not all impacts on coworkers are relevant," but only "worker impacts" that go on to "affect the conduct of the business." And "it would not be enough for an employer to conclude that forcing other employees to work overtime would constitute an undue hardship. Consideration of other options, such as voluntary shift swapping, would also be necessary.

"No undue hardship is imposed by temporary costs of voluntary shift swapping, occasional shift swapping, or administrative costs,” the Court opined. And the Supreme Court noted that employers might be required to consider other accommodations, "including those involving the cost of incentive pay, or the administrative costs of coordination with other nearby stations with a broader set of employees." Although the Supreme Court removed some costs from consideration, it left others untouched, including non-economic costs.

The Supreme Court ultimately shunned bright-line rules in evaluating what amounts to a "substantial cost" under Title VII. Instead, it held that it’s "appropriate to leave it to the lower courts to apply its clarified context-specific standard.” The Supreme Court stated that "courts should resolve whether a hardship would be substantial in the context of an employer's business" as a matter of "common sense."

After the Supreme Court's decision, the Seventh Circuit vacated its prior opinion and "remanded for the district court to apply the clarified standard to the religious accommodation claim. Thus, the parties filed Motions for Summary Judgment in which they analyzed the case under the standard set forth in Groff.

The district court found that Title VII doesn’t require the school to continue an accommodation that actually resulted in substantial student harm, and an unreasonable risk of liability, each sharply contradicting its legally entitled mission to foster a supportive environment for all. The Last Names Only Accommodation was an undue burden to the school as a matter of law. As a result, the district court denied Kluge's Motion for Summary Judgment and granted the school’s Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment. Kluge v. Brownsburg Cmty. Sch. Corp. (S.D. Ind. 4/30/2024).

Bottom Line

The reasonableness of an accommodation is assessed in context. This evaluation will turn in part on whether or not the employer can in fact continue to function without undue hardship if the employee is permitted" the requested accommodation. The issue of undue hardship will depend on close attention to the specific circumstances of the position.

With that in mind, accommodations can be reassessed and new facts or circumstances may make a previous accommodation an undue hardship or undue burden to an employer, and courts will resolve whether a hardship would be substantial in the context of an employer's business as a matter of common sense.

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