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Christian postal worker fighting for Sundays off loses appeal

The decision deepens a federal circuit split on whether employers must fashion religious accommodations that "totally eliminate" the conflict.

PHILADELPHIA (CN) — The U.S. Postal Service did not have to accommodate a Christian employee who complained that the only way he could avoid working on Sundays was by swapping shifts, the Third Circuit ruled Wednesday.

Gerald Groff had sought an exemption from Sunday work on the basis of his faith as a Sabbatarian Christian, but U.S. Circuit Judge Patty Shwartz wrote for the majority that such an accommodation "would cause an undue hardship" for his post office employers in Holtwood, Pennsylvania.

"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 ruling states.

Groff had been worked for the Postal Service as a rural carrier associate for about four years when the U.S. Postal Service expanded its service of Amazon package delivery in rural areas to Sundays.

The USPS brass told Groff they were short-staffed and furthermore bound by a collective bargaining agreement that required rural carrier associates to work in a Sunday rotation. Groff's only option was to ask a co-worker to switch shifts with him every time he had to work a Sunday.

After missing dozens of shifts coinciding with his Sabbath day, Groff was disciplined, resigned and filed suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

The Third Circuit heard oral arguments in January and affirmed judgment against Groff on Wednesday.

While the majority agreed with Groff that shift swapping is not a reasonable accommodation because it does not totally eliminate the conflict, the court also noted that the Postal Service would suffer if it had to grant such accommodation.

Shwartz, an Obama appointee, was joined in the majority by U.S. Circuit Judge Julio Fuentes, a Clinton appointee.

U.S. Circuit Judge Thomas Hardiman agreed with his colleagues that a conflict had to be totally eliminated to result in reasonable accommodation under Title VII, an issue that had split circuit courts across the country. On the other hand, Hardiman was skeptical at just how much Groff's scheduling needs would burden the Postal Service.

“Inconvenience to Groff’s coworkers alone doesn’t constitute undue hardship,” Hardiman wrote in his dissent.

The George W. Bush appointee went on.

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stayed Gerald Groff from the completion of his appointed rounds," Hardiman wrote. "But his sincerely held religious belief precluded him from working on Sundays. Because USPS has not yet shown that it could not accommodate Groff’s Sabbatarian religious practice without its business suffering undue hardship, I respectfully dissent.”

Groff was represented by Baker Botts attorney Christopher Tutunjian, who focused on Hardiman's dissent in a statement Wednesday about the case's outcome.

“We are pleased with the Third Circuit’s unanimous holding that a 'reasonable accommodation' under Title VII must completely eliminate the work-religion conflict. This holding correctly addresses a circuit-splitting issue and will protect the religious rights of employees throughout the Circuit," Tutunjian wrote. "However, as Judge Hardiman persuasively explained in his partial dissent, the majority’s erroneous conclusion that USPS established undue hardship only underscores the need for the Supreme Court to address the continued vitality of the Court’s decision in TWA v. Hardison.  We are considering our options for further review."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Veronica Finkelstein did not respond to an email seeking comment. 

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