The Supreme Court appeared to side with a former mailman, an evangelical Christian, who says the US Postal Service failed to honor his request not to work on Sundays.
A lower court had ruled against the worker, Gerald Groff, finding that his request would cause an “undue burden” on the USPS and cause low morale in the workplace when other employees had to pick up their shifts.
But during Tuesday’s oral arguments, there seemed to be a consensus, after nearly two hours of oral arguments, that the appeals court had been too quick to rule against Groff.
There seemed to be, as Justice Elena Kagan put it, a certain level of “kumbaya-ing” among the justices on the bench at times.
But as the justices tried to move on to a test that lower courts could use to clarify how far employers must go to accommodate their employees’ religious beliefs, differences emerged when a lawyer for Groff suggested for the court to overturn a decades-old precedent. Conservative Justice Samuel Alito seemed open to the prospect.
Critically, however, Judges Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh were sympathetic to the Postal Service’s arguments that granting Groff’s request could lower morale among other employees. Kavanaugh noted that “morale” among entrepreneurs is critical to the success of any business. And several judges agreed with the financial difficulties the USPS has faced over the years.
Groff, who lives in Pennsylvania, served in 2012 as an associate rural carrier for the United States Postal Service, a position that provides coverage for absentee career employees who have gained the ability to take off on weekends. Rural carrier 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 her schedule so she could come to work after church services, or telling her she would have to see if other workers could pick up her shifts. At some point, the postmaster himself made the deliveries because it was difficult to find workers willing to work on Sunday. Finally, the USPS suggested to Groff that he choose a different day to observe the Sabbath.
The atmosphere with his co-workers was tense, and Groff said he faced progressive discipline. In response, she filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces federal laws that made it illegal to discriminate against an employee based on religion.
Groff eventually left in 2019. In a resignation letter, he said he had been unable to find an “accommodating work environment 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 because of his 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 informed their employer, and must have been disciplined for non-compliance.
Under the law, the burden is on the employer. The employer must demonstrate that it made a good faith effort to “reasonably accommodate” the employee’s belief 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 Groffarguing that his request not to work on Sundays would cause an “undue hardship” for the USPS.
The US Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit affirmed the sentence in a 2-1 vote.
“Groff’s exemption from Sunday work caused more than a de minimis cost to USPS because it actually imposed on his co-workers, disrupted the workplace and work flow, and lowered employee morale ,” the 3rd Circuit wrote in its opinion last year.
“The accommodation requested by Groff (exemption from Sunday work),” the court added, “would cause an undue hardship to USPS.”
A dissenting judge, Thomas Hardiman, offered a road map for justices seeking to rule in Groff’s favor. The main thrust of his dissent was that the law requires the USPS to show how the proposed accommodation would harm the “business,” not Groff’s co-workers.
“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness of night prevented Gerald Groff from completing his designated rounds,” wrote Hardiman, a George W. Bush nominee who was shortlisted for to the Supreme Court nomination that went to Judge Neil Gorsuch in 2017. “But his sincere religious belief prevented him from working on Sundays.”
Groff’s attorney, Aaron Streett, told the high court that the USPS could have done more and was wrong to say that “respecting Groff’s belief was too onerous.” He urged the justices to cut back or overturn precedents and allow an accommodation that would allow the worker to “serve both his employer and his God.”
“Sunday is a day where we come together and almost taste heaven,” Groff said The New York Times recently “We come together as believers. Let’s celebrate who we are, together. We worship God. And so to be asked to deliver packages from Amazon and to give up all of that, it’s really kind of sad.”
The Biden administration has urged the high court to simply clarify the law to make it clear that an employer is not required to accommodate an employee’s Sabbath observance by “operating on light duty or regularly paying overtime to secure workers replacement”.
Attorney General Elizabeth Prelogar acknowledged, however, that the employer could still be required to bear other costs, such as the administrative costs associated with rearranging schedules.
This story has been updated with additional details.