Supreme Court Accepts Case of Sabbath Observer Who Had to Quit Postal Service

By Rafael Hoffman

United States Supreme Court building

NEW YORK–The Supreme Court will take up a case revisiting the extent to which employers must go to accommodate Sabbath observance and religious practice in the workplace. 

The court’s decision to address the topic fulfills a long-sought goal from advocates in the Orthodox community and other religious liberty supporters who have argued that a 1977 case, TWA v. Hardison, drew too low a bar for employers who do not want to accommodate religious workers and hence created barriers for people of faith in the workplace.

“It is unlawful for employers to discriminate against employees on the basis of religion,” said Kelly Shackelford, President, CEO and Chief Counsel for First Liberty which is representing the plaintiff. “It’s time for the Supreme Court to reconsider a decades-old case that favors corporations and the government over the religious rights of employees.” 

The present case pits Gerald Groff, an evangelical Christian from Lancaster County Pennsylvania, against the United States Postal Service (USPS). Beginning in 2012, Mr. Groff worked as a rural carrier associate, a part-time position that largely serves as a substitute for regular mail carriers. In 2013, facing ongoing financial strains, the USPS signed a contract with Amazon to use its force to deliver packages for the company on Sundays, when Mr. Groff observes his Sabbath. He initially transferred to another post office and was able to continue working, but eventually, his superiors said that his inability to work Sundays was becoming an impediment to scheduling, which they could no longer accommodate.

In 2019, claiming he was faced with no choice besides violating his beliefs or leaving the USPS, he resigned and sued the postal service. Pointing to Hardison, a district court and later the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for the USPS, saying the hardship caused by Mr. Groff’s Sabbath observance absolved them having to accommodate him.

At the heart of Mr. Groff’s claims is a 1972 amendment to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which required employers to accommodate religious practices of employees as long as they did not cause “undue hardship” to the entity in question. In 1977, in its Hardison ruling, the Supreme Court ruled that an employer has satisfied that standard if accommodation forces him “to bear more than a de minimis [minimal]cost.”

Mr. Groff’s attorneys argue that Hardison has created a precedent under which courts “virtually always side with employers whenever an accommodation would impose any burden,” and that the ruling should be overturned.

“Hardison undermines Congress’s efforts to ensure that the Nation remains committed to religious pluralism and the free exercise of religious beliefs,” reads his brief. “This Court should remedy that wrong, and this case—free of vehicle problems that plagued previous petitions on this issue—presents an ideal opportunity to do so.”

A support brief submitted by the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs (COLPA) on behalf of the Agudath Israel of America, the Rabbinic Council of America, Torah Umesorah and several other Orthodox organizations, supports Mr. Groff’s call to undo the 1977 case. It claims that since Hardison, several Orthodox Jews and others have lost legal battles over accommodation of their Sabbath observance. It was authored by attorney Nathan Lewin, who drafted the relevant section of the 1972 amendment in question and argued before the court in Hardison.

“The Hardison opinion gives a stingy interpretation to a civil-rights amendment designed to grant fair opportunities for devout adherents to religious principle,” reads COLPA’s brief. “It has curtailed careers, closed avenues to success, and damaged the lives of many individuals who are unwilling to compromise their faith.”

COLPA also argues that the court’s increasingly less restrictive understanding of the Constitutional guidelines relating to religion in the public sphere justify a new ruling on the subject.

“Changes in American society and in the understanding of the Establishment Clause justify rejection and repudiation today of a legal rule that perpetrates great injustice and harm on Sunday observing Christians like petitioner and on Jewish, Moslem, and Seventh-Day Adventist members of America’s work force,” it says.

The Orthodox Union submitted a separate brief together with the General Conference of Seventh Day Adventists, also arguing for Hardison to be overturned, pointing to its disproportionate ill effects on minority groups.

The Biden administration’s Solicitor General, Elizabeth Prelogar, who is acting as defense for USPS, said that the government also wants to see the court review Hardison, but that “this case would be a poor vehicle in which to do so for several reasons.” The administration’s brief argues that Mr. Groff’s case caused USPS “undue hardship” even under a higher standard; accommodation would have required violation of a labor agreement; and that federal entities are held to a higher bar of religious accommodation than private counterparts — making the case an ill-suited model.

The court’s accepting Mr. Groff’s case implies that they will rule favorably for his position. Two years ago, the Justices denied review of another case that called for overturning Hardison as they said it was not an ideal vehicle for doing so, but a concurrence penned by Justice Samuel Alito and joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch urged that the time had come to undo the 1977 precedent. That is in addition to a broadly positive disposition by the present court towards the rights of religious individuals in the public square.

The case is set to be argued in April. 

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