Supreme Court Tackles Respect for the Sabbath in ‘Groff v. DeJoy’

COMMENTARY: The United States was founded on the respect for the religious beliefs of all its citizens.

The U.S. Postal Service unveils two of its battery-powered vehicles at the Postal Service Headquarters on Dec. 20 in Washington.
The U.S. Postal Service unveils two of its battery-powered vehicles at the Postal Service Headquarters on Dec. 20 in Washington. (photo: Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images)

Gerald Groff began working for the U.S. Postal Service in 2012 as a mailman at a rural outpost in Pennsylvania. In 2013, USPS signed a contract with Amazon to deliver its packages.

The deal required those packages to be delivered on Sundays and holidays. Groff is a strict Sabbatarian Christian, so he refused because it would violate the Third Commandment. A long-running dispute began — and now the case will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. 

At first, management at the post office where Groff worked tried to fill Sunday shifts with volunteers, and Groff picked up additional shifts during the week. Eventually, however, all employees were scheduled to work on Sundays. Groff then sought and was granted a transfer to an outpost that had not yet begun delivering for Amazon. 

In 2017, however, that changed. Groff’s postmaster offered to find volunteers to fill Groff’s shifts. This wasn’t always successful, and Groff was later disciplined for failing to show up on the Sundays when he was scheduled to work. 

Groff quit in 2019 and sued USPS for failing to accommodate his religious practice, as required under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. This federal law prohibits employers from firing workers for practicing their religion unless the employer can show that the worker’s religious practice cannot “reasonably” be accommodated without “undue hardship.” In 1977, the Supreme Court ruled in Trans World Airlines v. Hardison that the “undue hardship” standard is met whenever the accommodation would require more than a trivial or minimal cost. 

A district court reviewing Groff’s case ruled that USPS’ efforts to find workers for Groff’s Sunday shifts amounted to a reasonable accommodation and exempting Groff from Sunday shifts would cause USPS undue hardship. On appeal, two judges on a three-judge panel of the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, adding their own problematic reasoning. Not scheduling Groff on Sundays, the majority emphasized, affected the rest of his workplace by requiring his coworkers to cover his shifts or deliver more mail and “imposed on his coworkers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale."

Judge Thomas Hardiman dissented. He argued that “a burden on coworkers isn’t the same thing as a burden on the employer’s business” and that the majority ruling effectively subjected Title VII’s religious accommodation to ‘a heckler’s veto by disgruntled employees.’”

Groff has asked the Court to define the legal standard for what constitutes an “undue hardship” as one that involves “significant difficulty or expense.” He also asks the Court to make clear that an employer cannot demonstrate “undue hardship” by showing only that “the requested accommodation burdens the employee’s coworkers rather than the business itself.” 

Meanwhile the Biden administration — predictably — doesn’t want Groff’s religious beliefs accommodated. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar wrote in papers opposing Groff’s request for review that “simply skipping petitioner in the rotation for Sunday work would have violated both a collectively bargained (memorandum of understanding) and a specific settlement” and that Groff’s absence caused the only other rural carrier at the station to “bear the burden of Amazon Sundays alone during the 2017 peak season.”

On the other hand, some non-Christian religious groups are backing Groff. In an amicus brief filed with the Court, the Sikh Coalition, Muslim Advocates and the Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team argue that although the current legal standard “eviscerates the right to accommodations for practitioners of all faiths, it has especially pernicious effects for religious minorities.” The groups add that “adherents to minority faiths more often require workplace accommodations because their religious traditions are not already accommodated." 

Sens. James Lankford, R-Okla., Tim Scott, R-S.C., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and a group of lawmakers in the House of Representatives urge the Court to revisit its definition for assessing whether a particular accommodation would constitute an “undue burden” on an employer. Groff’s proposal, they write, is more consistent with the text of the law and Congress’ purpose in passing it.

How will this Supreme Court decide Groff’s case? It is always dangerous to make predictions. It is, however, worth noting that, in addition to being a very pro-religious freedom Court, three justices — Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch — have previously called for the Court to revisit Hardison.

Not all Americans will feel huge sympathy for Gerald Groff; however you read the situation, his supervisors tried to accommodate him, and one can understand why coworkers complained. 

That said, we mustn’t forget that Groff’s Sabbatarian beliefs would once have been held by a majority of American churchgoers. They were part of the fabric of our lives. Just as we do not expect observant Jews to violate the Sabbath by working after sundown on Fridays, we shouldn’t refuse to extend a similar protection to Christians with Sabbatarian beliefs that were once mainstream — and held by many Catholics. If we do, we will be making nonsense of the legal guarantees of religious freedom. It really is as simple as that. 

Oral argument in Groff v. DeJoy has not yet been scheduled. A decision by the Court is expected by late June.