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Gerald Groff: Supreme Court Appears to Sympathize with Postal Worker Who Didn’t Work Sunday in Dispute Over Religious Accommodations



CNN

The Supreme Court appeared to side with a former mail carrier, an evangelical Christian, who claims the U.S. Postal Service failed to respond to his request not to work on Sundays.

A lower court had ruled against the worker, Gerald Groff, finding that his request would cause an “undue burden” on the USPS and lead to low morale in the workplace when other employees had to take his shifts.

But during oral arguments Tuesday, there seemed to be consensus, after nearly two hours of arguments, that the appeals court had been too quick to rule against Groff.

There seemed to be at times, as Justice Elena Kagan put it, a certain level of “kumbaya-ing” between the justices sitting on the bench.

But as the justices sought to adopt a standard that lower courts could use to clarify how far employers must go to accommodate their employees’ religious beliefs, differences arose when a lawyer for Groff suggested to the court that overturn a decades-old precedent. Conservative Justice Samuel Alito seemed open to the prospect.

However, Justice Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh were sympathetic to arguments made by the Postal Service that granting Groff’s request could lower the morale of other employees. Kavanaugh emphasized that employer “morale” is essential to the success of any business. And several justices highlighted the financial difficulties the USPS has faced over the years.

Groff, who lives in Pennsylvania, worked in 2012 as a rural carrier associate with the United States Postal Service, a position that covers absentee career employees who gained the ability to take weekend time off. Associates of rural carriers are told they need flexibility.

In 2013, Groff’s life changed when the USPS contracted with Amazon to deliver packages on Sundays. Groff’s Christian religious beliefs prohibit him from working on Sundays.

The Postal Service considered some accommodations for Groff, such as offering to adjust his schedule so he could come to work after church services, or telling him he should see if other workers could take his shifts. At one point, the postmaster made deliveries himself because it was difficult to find employees willing to work on Sundays. Ultimately, the USPS suggested that Groff choose another day to observe the Sabbath.

The atmosphere with his colleagues was tense and Groff said he faced progressive discipline. In response, he filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is responsible for enforcing federal laws that prohibit discrimination against an employee based on religion.

Groff ultimately left in 2019. In a resignation letter, he said he failed to find an “accommodating employment atmosphere within the USPS that would honor his religious beliefs.”

Groff filed a lawsuit, arguing that the USPS violated Title VII – a federal law that prohibits discrimination against an employee because of their religion. To make a claim under the law, an employee must demonstrate that he or she has a sincerely held religious belief that conflicts with a requirement of his or her position, must notify his or her employer, and must have been subject to disciplinary action for not comply with it.

According to the law, the burden then falls on the employer. The employer must demonstrate that it made a good faith effort to “reasonably accommodate” the employee’s beliefs or demonstrate that such accommodation would cause “undue hardship” on the employer.

District Judge Jeffrey Schmehl, appointed by former President Barack Obama, ruled against Groff, finding that his request not to work on Sundays would cause “undue hardship” on the USPS.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision in a 2-1 opinion.

“Exempting Groff from working on Sundays caused more than a de minimis cost to the USPS, as it actually burdened his co-workers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale,” the 3rd Circuit wrote in its opinion last year.

“The accommodation sought by Groff (exemption from Sunday work),” the court added, “would result in undue hardship on the USPS.”

A dissenting justice, Thomas Hardiman, offered a road map for justices seeking to rule in Groff’s favor. The gist of his dissent was that the law requires USPS to show how proposed accommodations would harm “businesses” – not Groff’s colleagues.

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness of night prevented Gerald Groff from completing his nomination rounds,” wrote Hardiman, a George W. Bush nominee who was on the list restricted for the Supreme Court nomination that went to Justice Neil Gorsuch in 2017. “But his sincere religious beliefs prevented him from working on Sundays.”

Groff’s attorney, Aaron Streett, told the high court that the USPS could have done more and was wrong to claim that “upholding Groff’s beliefs was too costly.” He urged the justices to reduce or invalidate precedent and allow accommodations that would allow the worker to “serve both his employer and his God.”

“Sunday is a day when we come together and taste almost heaven,” Groff recently told the New York Times. “We come together as believers. We celebrate who we are, together. We worship God. And so, to be asked to deliver Amazon packages and to give all that up is really, really sad.

The Biden administration urged the high court to simply clarify the law to make clear that an employer is not required to accommodate an employee’s observance of the Sabbath by “working understaffed or regularly paying overtime to find replacement workers.

Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar acknowledged, however, that the employer may still be required to bear other costs, such as administrative expenses related to reorganizing schedules.

This story has been updated with additional details.


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