Sabbath Wins in the Supreme Court

Sabbath Wins in the Supreme Court

On Thursday, the US Supreme Court reinstated the discrimination lawsuit of Groff v. DeJoy filed by Gerald Groff, a former mail carrier in Pennsylvania, who claimed his employer, the Postal Service, discriminated against him for being religious when they disciplined him for repeatedly refusing to work on Sunday, the Christian Sabbath. Groff is suing Louis DeJoy, the US Postmaster General, against the United States Postal Service in which he claimed he was forced to quit the agency because they wouldn’t allow him to have Sundays off to observe Sabbath.

The justices ruled unanimously that employers must grant religious accommodation requests unless they can prove it’s a significant imposition on the business. Previous to this ruling, companies only had to show a minimal impact to deny such requests for religious accommodation.

“I hope this decision allows others to be able to maintain their convictions without living in fear of losing their jobs because of what they believe,” Groff said in a statement Thursday.

Groff is represented by  First Liberty Institute, a conservative Christian organization. His attorneys have asked the Supreme Court to overturn the Hardison precedent, eliminating the de minimis requirement, thereby requiring companies to show a “significant difficulty or expense” before denying an accommodation.

“The whole point of religious accommodation is you have to make special or favored arrangements in order to have an inclusive workforce,” said Alan Reinach, one of Groff’s attorneys.

“They would have to pay him overtime anyway,” Hiram Sasser, First Liberty’s general counsel, said. “So there’s no extra expense.”

Aaron Streett, Groff’s attorney, said Thursday, “This is an important victory for Americans of all faiths, who may now follow their religious consciences in the workplace. It is especially gratifying that the Court was unanimous in interpreting the Civil Rights Act according to its plain language, holding that employers must accommodate religious practices absent an ‘undue hardship’ on the ‘conduct of the business.’”

“This is a landmark victory, not only for Gerald but for every American. No American should be forced to choose between their faith and their job,” said Kelly Shackelford, President, CEO, and Chief Counsel for First Liberty. “The Court’s decision today restores religious freedom to every American in the workplace.

“Big corporations got away with firing employees for their religious practices for decades, thanks to a fundamental misreading of civil rights law,” Becket Fund president and CEO Mark Rienzi said in a statement. “That mistake by the Court long pushed faith out of daily life by giving employers free rein to give religious workers the boot for observing holy days and taking time to pray. Today’s ruling corrects decades of rulings against religious Americans.”

Goff, an evangelical, received multi-faith support in his case from other Christian groups, the American Hindu Coalition, the American Sikh Coalition, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

His case will now return to lower courts for further litigation over whether he prevails under the new standard.

In 2012, Groff was hired as a “rural carrier associate”  filling in for more senior career employees during absences in the towns of Quarryville and Holtwood in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County.

The problem began in 2013 when the Postal Service signed a contract with Amazon that required them to deliver on Sundays. Previous to this, USPS did not operate on Sundays like other federal employers. The success of Amazon Sunday delivery was critical to USPS. 

“I believe in a literal keeping of the Lord’s Day,” Groff said. “It’s the entire day as a day of rest and … spending time with fellow believers. But most of all, just to honor God and keep the day special unto him,” he says.

To avoid Amazon Sunday deliveries, Groff transferred to Holtwood, a small station with a postmaster, three full-time carriers, and three RCAs (including Groff). In March 2017, however, Holtwood began Amazon Sunday deliveries. 

The Postal Service was chronically understaffed in rural areas and Goff was scheduled to fill in. Goff failed to report on Sundays and Postal officials were forced to find a replacement. They were not always successful. His absences were difficult for the Postal Service and generated resentment among the other carriers who had to cover his shifts. Over the course of two years, Groff received eight pre-disciplinary reviews, a letter of warning and two suspensions for failing to show up to work. He resigned in 2019.

The case focuses on a federal anti-discrimination law called Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on religion and other factors including race, sex, and national origin.

Under Title VII, employers must make allowances for a worker’s religious observance or practices unless that would cause the business “undue hardship”. This concept came into play in the 1977 Supreme Court case called Trans World Airlines v. Hardison in which it was ruled that an employer need not accommodate a worker’s desire to avoid work on the Sabbath if that would mean operating short-handed or regularly paying premium wages to replacement workers. The Supreme Court stated that employers should not have to bear more than what it called a “de minimis,” or trifling, cost. 

The Postal Service contends that accommodating Groff would have imposed an undue hardship by requiring it to operate with insufficient staff. It further claimed that substantial numbers of other employees would transfer or quit due to the increased hardship incurred by Goff’s sabbath observance. 

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