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Postal worker brings Sabbath day-off case to high court

The addition of eight new cases to this year’s docket will allow the justices to review First Amendment issues, tribal sovereignty and whistleblower suits.

WASHINGTON (CN) — After dividing the Third Circuit with his religious discrimination case, a Christian postal worker who refuses to work on Sundays will bring his claims to the Supreme Court this term. 

Gerald Groff began working for the United States Postal Service in 2012 as a rural carrier associate at a Pennsylvania outpost. In 2013, USPS signed a contract with Amazon to deliver its packages. The Amazon deal required USPS to deliver on Sundays and holidays. Management attempted to prioritize volunteers for these shifts but eventually had to pull in employees who preferred not to work these days. 

When Groff’s office began delivering Amazon packages in 2015, he was exempted from Sunday shifts as a Sabbatarian Christian. After a memorandum was issued in 2016 establishing a process for scheduling Sunday and holiday shifts, Groff was required to work on Sundays. Instead, Groff transferred to a different office that had not yet begun delivering for Amazon. 

In 2017, Groff ran out of luck and his new location started Sunday deliveries for Amazon. Groff informed his postmaster that he would not work these days because of his religious beliefs. The postmaster offered to send emails to volunteers whenever Groff was scheduled on a Sunday to try and fill his shifts, but his approach failed to be consistently effective. 

Groff was disciplined for failing to show up to work on Sundays. He resigned and sued USPS for failing to accommodate his religious practice. The district court found that employers do not need to wholly eliminate a conflict to provide reasonable accommodations. It found that the Postal Service’s efforts to find workers for Groff’s Sunday shifts amounted to reasonable accommodation and that exempting Groff from Sunday shifts would cause undue hardship to USPS. A divided Third Circuit panel affirmed. 

Taking up eight new cases Friday afternoon, the justices agreed to decide if the district court applied the appropriate test for refusing religious accommodations and what kind of undue hardship employers must demonstrate. 

Another of the other cases newly granted certiorari asks what constitutes a true threat under the First Amendment. It arises from a Colorado man, Billy Raymond Counterman, who became Facebook friends with a local musician in 2014 and went on to send her periodic messages from several accounts over the next two years. The musician eventually blocked Counterman and contacted an attorney, claiming she was frightened by the messages. She also reported the messages to law enforcement and obtained a protective order. 

Counterman was arrested and charged with stalking. He attempted to get the stalking charges dismissed, arguing his messages were not true threats and were protected speech under the First Amendment. The trial judge denied this request and found Counterman’s messages to constitute a true threat. He was then convicted by the jury and sentenced to over four years in prison. The Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed and the state Supreme Court denied review. 

The six other cases included in Friday’s grants cover whistleblower suits, immigration law, sovereign immunity and racketeering laws. 

SuperValu, the grocery and pharmacy chain, is at the heart of a case saying it intentionally misreported prices it charged for prescription drugs, leading government programs to overpay. The court will decide if the store’s understanding of the lawfulness of its conduct matters to whether it knowingly violated the False Claims Act. 

Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians will provide the court an opportunity to review how tribal sovereignty applies under the bankruptcy code. 

Stemming from a Maryland correction officer’s assault charge against an inmate, the court will answer a technical question concerning the appeal timing of post-trial motions.  

A former Russian politician living in Los Angeles brought the justices a racketeering case to decide what grounds need to be established by foreign entities to bring suits in federal court. 

The court will also review the seizing of a 93-year-old Minnesota woman’s home to pay for overdue taxes. The case asks if taking and selling a home to satisfy government debt violates the Takings Clause.  

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