The Supreme Court seemed to side with a former mail carrier, an evangelical Christian, who says the US Postal Service failed to accommodate his request to not work on Sundays.
A lower court had ruled against the worker, Gerald Groff, holding that his request would cause an “undue burden” on the USPS and lead to low morale at the workplace when other employees had to pick up his shifts.
But during oral arguments on Tuesday, there appeared to be consensus, after almost 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, some level of “kumbaya-ing” between the justices on the bench at times.
But as justices sought to land on a test that lower courts could use to clarify how far employers must go to accommodate their employees’ religious beliefs, differences arose when a lawyer for Groff suggested that the court overturn decades-old precedent. Conservative Justice Samuel Alito seemed open to the prospect.
Critically, however, Justice Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh were sympathetic to arguments made by the Postal Service that granting Groff’s request might cause morale to plummet among the other employees. Kavanaugh noted that “morale” among employers is critical to the success of any business. And several justices nodded to the financial difficulties the USPS has faced over the years.
Groff, who lives in Pennsylvania, served in 2012 as a rural carrier associate at the United States Postal Service, a position that provides coverage for absent career employees who have earned the ability to take off 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 bar him from working on Sundays.
The post office contemplated some accommodations to 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 pick up his shifts. At some point, the postmaster himself did the deliveries because it was difficult to find employees willing to work on Sunday. Finally, the USPS suggested Groff 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, 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 ultimately left in 2019. In a resignation letter, he said he had been unable to find an “accommodating employment atmosphere with the USPS that would honor his religious beliefs.”
Groff sued arguing that the USPS violated Title VII – a federal law that makes it unlawful to discriminate against an employee based on his religion. To make a claim under the law, an employee must show that he holds a sincere religious belief that conflicts with a job requirement, he must inform his employer and has to have been disciplined for failing to comply.
Under the law, the burden then shifts to the employer. The employer must show that they made a good faith effort to “reasonably accommodate” the employee’s belief or demonstrate that such an accommodation would cause an “undue hardship” upon the employer.
District Judge Jeffrey Schmehl, an appointee of former President Barack Obama, ruled against Groff, holding that that his request to not work on Sundays would cause an “undue hardship” for the USPS.
The 3rd US Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling in a 2-1 opinion.
“Exempting Groff from working on Sundays caused more than a de minimis cost on USPS because it actually imposed on his coworkers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale,” the 3rd Circuit wrote in its opinion last year.
“The accommodation Groff sought (exemption from Sunday work)” the court added, “would cause an undue hardship on USPS.”
A dissenting judge, Thomas Hardiman, offered a road map for justices seeking to rule in favor of Groff. The main thrust of his dissent was that the law requires the USPS to show how the proposed accommodation would harm “business” – not Groff’s coworkers.
“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stayed Gerald Groff from the completion of his appointed rounds,” wrote Hardiman, a George W. Bush nominee who was on a shortlist for the Supreme Court nomination that went to Justice Neil Gorsuch in 2017. “But his sincerely held religious belief precluded him from working on Sundays.”
Groff’s lawyer, Aaron Streett, told the high court that the USPS could have done more and was wrong to claim that “respecting Groff’s belief was too onerous.” He urged the justices to cut back or invalidate precedent and allow an accommodation that would allow the worker to “serve both his employer and his God.”
“Sunday’s a day where we get together and almost taste heaven,” Groff told The New York Times recently. “We come together as believers. We celebrate who we are, together. We worship God. And so to be asked to deliver Amazon parcels and give all that up, it’s just really kind of sad.”
The Biden administration has urged the high court to simply clarify the law to make clear that an employer is not required to accommodate an employee’s Sabbath observance by “operating shorthanded or regularly paying overtime to secure replacement workers.”
Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar acknowledged, however, that employer could still be required to bear other costs such as administrative expenses associated with rearranging schedules.
This story has been updated with additional details.