Labor Day and the right not to work
The law should respect workers’ consciences about the Lord’s Day
Labor Day is always a good time to reflect on the nature of productive work, and how our work fits in with God’s larger vision for human flourishing. A recent case appealed to the Supreme Court helps us understand the scope of our work, specifically by pointing to its appropriate limits.
A decade ago, Gerald Groff began work with the U.S. Postal Service as a mail carrier in Lancaster County, Pa. Not long afterward, the corporate behemoth Amazon worked out a deal to use the Postal Service to deliver packages on Sundays as part of its Prime shipping program. Amazon Prime has carved out a reputation for speed, guaranteeing shipping in days or even hours, depending on where the customer lives.
The USPS, founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1791, has a storied history and has been a key part of America’s social infrastructure. But over the last half century, the postal service has floundered as corporate competitors have chipped away at its dominance and digital services have replaced many paper letters. So, it’s understandable that a government service like the USPS, which runs deficits every year, would be receptive to partnership with an agile and profitable partner like Amazon.
But as that deal with Amazon developed, some policies that had been respected in the past were left out. In the case of Gerald Groff, for instance, the USPS longstanding break from delivery on Sundays was sacrificed to Amazon’s always on-call delivery culture. As the conditions of his employment changed with the new requirements to deliver packages for Amazon on Sundays, Groff requested a religious exemption. He believes that Sundays ought to be a day of rest in which people can gather for worship, and that he is under God’s instruction to do so.
While Jews continue to observe the Sabbath from sundown on Friday to sunset on Saturday, some Christians have long understood Sunday to be the form of the Sabbath in the new dispensation after the coming of Jesus Christ. Many Christian denominations have teachings and practices around Sabbath observance that treat Sunday as qualitatively different than the other “six days” of the week.
Initially Groff’s request to work extra shifts during the week, but not on Sunday, was granted by the postmaster. But years later the policy changed, and Groff was only offered schedules that would require him to work delivering Amazon packages on Sundays. Rather than violate what he saw as his duty to observe the Sabbath, Groff resigned and sued the USPS for violating his religious liberty rights. Groff’s case has now been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and First Liberty Institute (where I work) is among the counsel representing Groff.
As we celebrate the gift of work on Labor Day, we should also remember the proper, God-ordained limits of work. While work can be a form of faithfulness to God, Christians need to have time set aside for corporate worship, preaching, and administration of the sacraments. The right to work celebrated on Labor Day also includes the right not to work when such work violates someone’s conscience and religious observance.
A key dynamic of this case is that the longstanding policy of the USPS not to deliver on Sundays has shifted since its alliance with a for-profit corporation. Working at the USPS means something different now than when it did when Groff and others started as postal carriers.
But a society that forces someone to give up their livelihood to remain faithful to their religious convictions is not a just or a free society, when accommodations could clearly be made, certainly isn’t one that manifests the best of the American democratic order.
We can hope that Groff’s case will be heard by the nation’s highest court and that this injustice can be corrected and serve as a lesson for the future: the right to work ought to be respected, and for religious liberty to be respected as well.
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