The Supreme Court appeared to side with a former mail carrier, an evangelical Christian, who says the U.S. Postal Service failed to honor his request to not work on Sundays.
A lower court ruled against the worker, Gerald Groff, saying his claim would cause an “undue burden” on the USPS and lead to low morale in the workplace when other employees would have to take their shifts.
But during oral arguments Tuesday, there appeared to be a consensus, after nearly two hours of oral arguments, that the appeals court was too quick to rule against Groff.
There seemed to be, as Justice Elena Kagan put it, a certain level of “kumbaya-ing” between the justices on the bench at times.
But as the justices tried to arrive at a test that lower courts could use to clarify how far employers should go to accommodate their employees’ religious beliefs, differences emerged when a lawyer for Groff’s suggested the court overturn decades-old precedent. Conservative Justice Samuel Alito seemed open to the prospect.
Critically, however, Judges Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh sympathized with the Postal Service’s arguments that granting Groff’s request could lead to low morale among other employees. Kavanaugh noted that “morale” among employers is critical to the success of any business. And several judges nodded to the financial difficulties the USPS has faced over the years.
Groff, who lives in Pennsylvania, worked in 2012 as a rural transportation associate with the United States Postal Service, a position that provides coverage for absentee career employees who have earned the ability to leave on weekends. Rural transport associates are told they need flexibility.
In 2013, Groff’s life changed when the USPS contracted with Amazon to deliver packages on Sundays. Groff’s Christian religious beliefs prevent him from working on Sundays.
The post office considered some accommodations for Groff, such as offering to adjust his schedule so he could come to work after religious services or telling him he should see if other workers could take over his shifts. At one point, the postmaster himself made the deliveries because it was hard to find employees willing to work on Sundays. Finally, the USPS suggested to Groff that he choose another day to observe the Sabbath.
The atmosphere with his colleagues was tense and Groff said he faced progressive discipline. In response, he filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is charged with enforcing federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against an employee because of religion.
Groff eventually left in 2019. In a resignation letter, he said he was unable to find “a supportive employment atmosphere with the USPS that honored his religious beliefs.”
Groff sued, arguing that the USPS violated Title VII — a federal law that makes it illegal to discriminate against an employee based on his or her religion. To make a claim under the law, an employee must demonstrate that they have a sincerely held religious belief that conflicts with a job requirement, must have notified their employer, and must have been disciplined for the noncompliance.
By law, the onus is then on the employer. The employer must demonstrate that it made a good-faith effort to “reasonably accommodate” the employee’s conviction, or demonstrate that such accommodation would cause an “undue hardship” to the employer.
District Judge Jeffrey Schmehl, appointed by former President Barack Obama, ruled against Groffclaiming that his request not to work on Sundays would cause an “undue burden” on the USPS.
US Third Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed the decision in a 2-1 vote.
“Exempting Groff from work on Sunday caused more than a de minimis cost to the USPS because it actually imposed on his colleagues, disrupted the workplace and work flow, and diminished employee morale,” wrote the 3rd Circuit in its opinion last year.
“The accommodation Groff sought (exemption from Sunday work),” the court added, “would cause an undue hardship to the USPS.”
A dissenting judge, Thomas Hardiman, offered a roadmap for justices who want to rule in Groff’s favor. The main focus of his dissent was that the law requires the USPS to show how the proposed accommodation would harm “business” — not Groff’s colleagues.
“Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor the darkness of night stopped Gerald Groff from completing his appointed rounds,” wrote Hardiman, a George W. Bush candidate who was in a short list for Supreme Court nomination which went to Judge Neil Gorsuch in 2017. “But his sincere religious faith prevented him from working on Sundays.”
Groff’s attorney, Aaron Streett, told the high court that USPS could have done more and erred by arguing that “respecting Groff’s faith is too onerous.” He urged the justices to reduce or invalidate the precedent and allow an accommodation that would allow the worker to “serve both his employer and his God.”
“Sunday is a day we meet and almost taste heaven,” Groff said The New York Times recently. “We gather as believers. We celebrate who we are, together. We worship God. So to be asked to deliver Amazon packages and give up all of that is really, really sad.”
The Biden administration asked the high court to simply clarify the law to make clear that an employer is not required to enforce an employee’s Sabbath observance by “operating with difficulty or regularly paying overtime to provide replacement workers.”
Attorney General Elizabeth Prelogar acknowledged, however, that the employer may still be required to bear other costs, such as administrative expenses associated with rearranging schedules.
This story has been updated with additional details.