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Supreme Court to decide if postal worker should get pass for Sabbath Sunday

The justices must decide if employers are obligated to accommodate a worker's need for Sundays off, even if that would burden other staff. 

WASHINGTON (CN) — A decade ago the U.S. Postal Service announced it was teaming up with Amazon to do something it had never done before: making deliveries on Sunday. While aiming to regain profitability, the agency created a new problem for employees like Gerald Groff, a devout Evangelical Christian who observes Sunday Sabbath. 

Groff worked for USPS for seven years as a rural carrier associate in Pennsylvania. In 2019, after failing to obtain religious exemptions from his Sunday shifts, Groff resigned from his post. 

His departure also came with a lawsuit that will be in front of the Supreme Court next week weighing employer accommodations for employee religious beliefs. On Tuesday, the justices will consider if Groff should receive special treatment at the expense of his co-workers’ schedules. 

“If one Postal Service worker is not working, another is,” the National Rural Letter Carriers Association wrote in an amicus brief before the court. “Hence, accommodating one worker’s request for time off for religious observance requires a change to regular scheduling procedures.” 

Therein lies the rub in Groff’s accommodation request: the USPS says it's not possible without burdening other workers. The Supreme Court will decide if burdening other workers is a good enough excuse to deny Groff’s request. 

Representatives from the rural letter carriers association and postal unions think not. 

“A day off is not the special privilege of the religious,” a union representing postal workers wrote in an amicus brief. 

USPS claims Groff’s Sabbath exemption would require other carriers to take on extra shifts and lead to complaints. 

“The Free Exercise Clause does not countenance such a discriminatory preference for workers whose religious practice prohibits them from working on their Sabbath,” the union wrote. 

Congress codified employees' rights against discrimination based on their religious beliefs in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission interpreted Title VII’s protections to hold employers responsible to make accommodations for their employee’s beliefs when “such accommodations can be made without undue hardship” on the employer’s business. 

Almost 50 years ago, the Supreme Court attempted to define an employer’s undue hardship in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison. Similar to Groff’s suit, the case stemmed from an airline employee who did not want to work during his Saturday Sabbath. The justices found the Saturday Sabbath accommodation would harm the airline union — which would have to compel other employees to cover the shifts. Hardison also created a standard for evaluating these claims that said employers do not have to “bear more than a de minimis cost” to accommodate their employee’s beliefs. 

Groff is now challenging that holding. 

“Bereft of any textual support and incompatible with this Nation’s founding promises, Hardison’s wrong must be righted,” Aaron Streett, an attorney with Baker Botts representing Groff, wrote in his brief. 

As a rural carrier associate, Groff was considered a non-career employee who could provide coverage for absent career employees. These employees had flexible schedules, working on an as-needed basis. Groff began working for USPS prior to the Amazon deal when Sunday shifts were not required. But under the Amazon agreement, assistant rural carriers like Groff were to be the first line of employees to pick up the new Sunday and holiday shifts. 

Groff tried to avoid Sunday shifts by transferring to another outpost. In 2017 his luck ran out when that location began staffing shifts. His postmaster attempted to find other carriers to cover Groff’s shifts. The government claims this solution left one carrier to cover Amazon Sundays alone during the 2017 peak season. Another union member filed a grievance after being forced to cover Groff’s shifts. USPS resolved the grievance with a settlement. 


After missing over two dozen shifts that couldn’t be filled, USPS took action against Groff. He then resigned. 

“Groff explained to the Postmaster that when faced with a conflict between earthly authority and God’s commandments, he must always choose to honor God,” Streett wrote. 

Claiming USPS violated Title VII, Groff sued the agency. Last year the Third Circuit affirmed the ruling from a federal judge that Groff’s accommodation would have put an undue hardship on USPS.

The government says there is no need to overrule Hardison but the court should clarify its interpretation. Noting Congress’ amendments to Title VII, the Department of Justice says lawmakers have declined opportunities to change the court’s test set out in Hardison

“This Court demands an exceptionally compelling reason to overrule a statutory precedent because Congress is free to correct any error it perceives in this Court’s statutory decisions,” U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar wrote in the government’s brief. “That principle applies with full force here: In the nearly half-century since Hardison was decided, Congress has often amended Title VII, but it has repeatedly declined proposals to overturn Hardison.” 

For more than four decades, the court’s precedent has held that employers do not need to require Sabbath observance if it means operating shorthanded or paying other workers overtime to cover shifts, the government contends. 

“As this case illustrates, accommodations that affect the workforce often affect the conduct of the business as well,” Prelogar wrote. “That may occur, for example, when an accommodation would result in unbalanced workloads or unfavorable schedules that hamper employee retention. The EEOC’s guidance is consistent with that view. So too is Hardison’s holding that an accommodation may not require an employer to violate the terms of a collectively bargained agreement because doing so violates the rights of other employees — a holding that petitioner does not challenge.”

Groff disagrees, claiming Hardison “makes a mockery” of Title VII. 

“This Court should not hesitate to inter Hardison’s lawless and damaging de minimis test,” Streett wrote. “To begin with, Hardison’s undue-hardship discussion is dicta, for the Court was not interpreting Title VII at all. Thus, the Court writes on a clean slate when construing Title VII’s undue-hardship provision in this case.” 

Beyond reshaping its precedents in this area, Groff is asking the justices to reverse the prevalent appeals court view that employers experience undue hardship if an accommodation burdens other workers. 

“Title VII must not be subject to a heckler’s veto based on an accommodation’s effect on other employees,” Streett wrote. 

While the union and rural postal carriers warned the court of the consequences for workplaces, religious liberty scholars say the case is an important test for religious exercise. 

“Making allowances for the unusual needs of specific workers does not discriminate against majorities without those needs,” the scholars wrote in an amicus brief. “Current law provides such allowances for disability, pregnancy, and family medical issues, in addition to religion.”

The scholars claim that without accommodations, workplaces can discourage religious practice. 

“Work rules that force employees to choose between their faith and their job powerfully discourage religious exercise,” the scholars wrote. “But accommodating employees with special religious needs does little to encourage other employees to join these usually demanding religions. It is far more neutral to accommodate employees’ religious practices than to fire them for practicing their faith.” 

Follow @KelseyReichmann
Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights, Employment, Religion

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