A Christian US Postal Service employee in Pennsylvania is asking the Supreme Court to hear his religious accommodation case.
A History and Tradition of Rest Day Accommodation
From 1775 when Benjamin Franklin first organized it, at the request of Congress, until 1912, the US Postal Service operated seven days a week. And while some local offices remained closed on Sundays for the first few decades, in 1810, Congress passed a law requiring all post offices to open for at least one hour on Sundays. For the next century, religious leaders were upset about the “enforced Sunday desecration.”
The debate continued and in 1830, 75-year-old John Leland, a prominent Baptist minister who had championed liberty of conscience at the founding of the nation, addressed the issue. After describing America’s religious diversity, ranging from Islam to Judaism, paganism to Christianity, he stated that he believed that in deciding to close on Sunday, Congress would be making a theological decision in determining which day was holy. After all, he reasoned, Congress should also recognize that Saturday was holy to Jews and “Sevendarian Christians.” Leland concluded:
“The powers given to Congress are specific-guarded by a hitherto shalt thou come and no further.’ Among all the enumerated powers given to Congress, is there one that authorizes them to declare which day of the week, month, or year, is more holy than the rest-too holy to travel upon? If there is none, Congress must overleap their bounds, by an unpardonable construction, to establish the prohibition prayed for. Let the petitioners ask themselves the question. If Congress should assume an ecclesiasticopolitical power, and stop the mail on the seventh day, and let it be transported on the first, would that satisfy them? If not, are they doing as they would be done by?” The Writings of John Leland, Edited by L.F. Greene, Arno Press & The New York Times, New York, 1969, 564-66.
Apparently Leland thought that the way to accommodate religion was not to accommodate a large religious group through a change in policy, but from his argument we do learn the thinking of the time, and the role that “history and tradition” of blanket Sunday accommodation might have for the benefit of Mr. Groff.
The pressure continued to build, and finally, on August 24, 1912, slowly, President William Taft signed H.R. 21279 (Mann) (https://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes/62-2/h194 ) into law, closing all post offices on Sundays and introducing a six-day work week for postal clerks and letter carriers. The bill said, “hereafter post offices … shall not be opened on Sundays for the purpose of delivering mail to the public.” (If you’re interested in this history, complete with footnotes, see my May 2011 article on the Spectrum website, “Church, State, and the Postal Service: The Contentious History of Sunday Mail Delivery.”)
The Amazon Deal
Fast forward another hundred years to 2013, and Amazon.com worked out a deal with the perennially struggling postal service to provide their Prime members with two-day parcel deliveries, including on Sundays.
As an aside, I’m not sure that Congress ever overturned H.R. 21279. I Googled the phrase “shall not be opened on Sundays for the purpose of delivering mail to the public” and it seems the law is still in effect, so I’m not sure how the USPS got around it. Maybe it’s because the post offices themselves aren’t open or because they’re contracting with Amazon. I do think that the aggrieved postal worker in the case I’m about to describe might have a claim to “history and tradition” that would appeal to the Court that issued “history and tradition” -based decisions last term in Dobbs and Kennedy v. Bremerton.
Mr. Groff’s Story
Gerald Groff was a postal worker at the Holtwood, Pennsylvania Post Office. He’s a Christian who observes the Sabbath on Sunday and believes it is a day set aside for worship and rest. The USPS and the labor union entered a Memorandum of Understanding (“MOU”) or union contract, overriding a century of not only “history and tradition” of Sunday closures but President Taft’s law, establishing a policy for requiring employees to work on Sundays and holidays to deliver Amazon packages.
At first, the USPS asked for volunteers, and they were selected by seniority. If there were not enough volunteers, then they could select from among the people who did not volunteer. The Postmaster told Mr. Groff that he needed to violate his personal religious beliefs and work on Sundays or find another job.
Mr. Groff refused to do so, and the Postmaster tried to accommodate him by emailing other workers to see if someone could cover his shift. Volunteers were not always available, and the Postmaster tried to have an extra person available on Sundays when Mr. Groff was scheduled. Other workers got annoyed when Mr. Groff skipped Sundays while they had to work. Finally, the co-workers and the supervisors had enough, and the Postal Service disciplined Mr. Groff for poor attendance.
An Opportunity to Secure Workplace Religious Accommodation Rights
When it comes to religious accommodation, the laws tilt against employees because of a Supreme Court decision in the 1977 case of TWA v. Hardison that says that an employer has fulfilled its obligation to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs so long as it does not incur an undue hardship, which the Court defined as a “de minimis cost or expense” to do so.
Mr. Groff may also have another argument – while his co-workers may have been annoyed, that annoyance was not an “undue hardship” to the employer, so Hardison may not apply even if it emerges from this case intact.
We’ve addressed this in the past in cases involving Saturday Sabbath keepers. In fact, Founders’ First Freedom has filed amicus briefs asking the Court to address this issue in Dalberiste v. GLE Associates (2021) and Patterson v. Walgreens (2020). Both times, the Court sat on the requests that they hear the case and the cases were continued from conference to conference but ultimately the Court decided not to hear either of those cases, possibly because they were not the perfect ones to take on Hardison. In Patterson, the solicitor general recommended that the Court hear the case. In Small v. Memphis Light & Water (2021), involving a Jehovah’s Witness who had requested accommodation for religious services, Justices Gorsuch and Alito filed a dissent, saying that the Court should have heard the case.
UPDATE: On 1/13/2023 the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case
Photo: Lancaster, PA, USA – December 15, 2017: USPS Priority Mail boxes, Amazon, and other packages delivered at a residential home front door. – Photo by georgesheldon – DepositPhotos.com