LEGAL 101: The Standard for Title VII Religious Accommodations May Be Changing, and Every Employer Should be Paying Attention

It’s no secret that the current majority on the United States Supreme Court is focused on expanding certain religious liberties.

In Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, the Court significantly expanded religious freedoms in the First Amendment context when it held that a school district could not discipline a football coach for publicly engaging in prayer on the football field immediately after games.  The Court’s opinion rejected decades’ worth of cases that had attempted to balance the competing rights secured by the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause, and also demonstrated the majority’s willingness to cherry-pick the facts of a case when analyzing religious freedoms.

Emotional Distress Damages: How Far Does Cummings Reach?

Earlier this year, the United States Supreme Court held in Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller, P.L.L.C. that emotional distress damages are not recoverable in private actions brought to enforce Spending Clause statutes.  After acknowledging that “Congress has broad power under the Spending Clause of the Constitution to set terms on which it disburses federal funds”—including by conditioning an offer of federal funds on a recipient’s promise not to discriminate—the Court explained that Spending Clause legislation “is much in the nature of a contract: in return for federal funds, the [recipients] agree to comply with federally imposed conditions.”  The Court then held that plaintiffs cannot recover emotional distress damages for violations of Spending Clause statutes because emotional distress damages are not generally compensable in contract law, and because funding recipients lacked “clear notice” that accepting federal funds would subject them to emotional distress damages in private actions brought to enforce Spending Clause statutes.