Supreme Court Considers Religious-Freedom Case Involving Christian Postal Worker
COMMENTARY: The lawyer for Gerald Groff claims federal law requires the USPS to accommodate his request not to work Sundays.
When Gerald Groff first took a job as a mailman for the U.S. Postal Service in rural Pennsylvania, he was not required to work on Sundays. Amazon changed that. In 2012, the USPS signed a contract with the online giant to deliver packages on Sundays. Groff is a strict evangelical Christian. He refused, things turned nasty, and he left his job and asked lawyers to defend his statutory right to religious freedom.
Now, the case is with the Supreme Court, and the indications are that a majority of the justices will support Groff.
At first, Groff’s postmaster delivered the packages himself on Sundays. But other USPS employees were annoyed at Groff’s so-called special treatment. He was offered compromises, some of which displayed a startling ignorance of his straightforward beliefs: for example, a suggestion that he could observe the Sabbath on a different day of the week. Of course, he turned them down. His accommodation was withdrawn; and when he failed to show up for Sunday shifts, he was disciplined.
After he resigned in 2019, Groff went to court, pointing to the USPS’ obligations under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — the federal law that makes it unlawful to discriminate against an employee based on religion and requires employers to accommodate an employee’s religious observance or practice unless it places an undue hardship on the employer’s business.
The lower courts decided that Groff’s beliefs did place an undue hardship on his employer. They specifically pointed to the objection of co-workers to picking up Groff’s Sunday shifts. Those lower courts based their ruling on a Supreme Court decision from the late ’70s, TWA v. Hardison, that defined an “undue burden” as anything more than a de minimus expense (a term meaning so minor as to merit disregard).
In oral argument before the Supreme Court last week, Groff's lawyer Aaron Streett, senior counsel at First Liberty, told the justices that relying on Hardison “violates [Title VII’s] promise that employees should not be forced to choose between their faith and their job.” The “anything more than de minimus standard” used by courts, said Streett, “makes a mockery of the English language” and can’t be squared with the plain meaning of the term “undue hardship” used in Title VII.
Streett suggested that the Court instead define an “undue hardship” as one that involves “significant difficulty or expense.” This standard, incidentally, is used in religious-accommodation laws in California and New York, as well as federal laws such as the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).
Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan both asked Streett why the Court should adopt the “significant difficulty or expense” standard when Congress hasn’t done so. Streett responded that “it may very well have been that Congress felt hamstrung by this Court’s Establishment Clause jurisprudence and didn’t feel that it could adopt a heightened standard for undue hardship.”
U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, representing the USPS, urged the Court not to unsettle things by overruling Hardison. She said that, in practice, courts have conducted a fact-specific analysis that offers sufficient protection for religious employees.
But Justice Samuel Alito was not convinced. “We have amicus briefs by many representatives of many minority religions: Hindus, Muslims, Orthodox Jews, Seventh-Day Adventists,” he said. “They all say that is just not true and that Hardison has violated their right to religious liberty. Are they wrong?”
Taking Hardison on directly, Justice Neil Gorsuch said, “Congress doesn’t pass civil-rights legislation to have de minimis effect, right? We don’t think of the civil-rights laws as trifling, which is the definition of de minimis.”
He also repeatedly tried to find “common ground,” noting that both parties agree that the undue-hardship inquiry is context-dependent, based on factors including the size of the employer, the nature of the request, and what reasonable options are available to the employer.
This leads to the second question being considered by the Court: Is the impact of an accommodation on other co-workers relevant to the question of undue hardship? Streett argued that it isn’t, unless there is “some disruption to the operation of the business.”
In response, Kagan indicated that any impact on co-workers is always disruptive to the business as a whole. Justice Amy Coney Barrett took a more nuanced approach, asking whether mere “bad morale” among colleagues could constitute undue hardship.
In his closing remarks, Streett summarized what is at stake: “The government today has not given us any reason why religious employees should have less accommodation than all of those other individuals protected under the other statutes that share the same reasonable accommodation and undue-hardship framework.”
In other words, a lot is at stake. A decision in Groff v. DeJoy is expected in the summer.