Appeals court rejects postal worker’s Sabbath request
Gerald Groff’s refusal to work on Sunday disrupted his workplace, judges say
A divided federal appeals court panel in Philadelphia last Wednesday upheld the disciplining of a U.S. Postal Service letter carrier who was denied a religious exemption for work on Sunday, his Sabbath. The court’s ruling confirms that there is not an unlimited right to a job that you cannot do because of your religion.
In a 28-page opinion, 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Patty Shwartz, an Obama appointee, did not question the sincerity of Gerald Groff’s Christian beliefs. But she sided with the Postal Service in finding that the accommodation Groff sought would pose an “undue hardship” to the agency.
“Exempting Groff from working on Sundays caused more than a de minimis cost on USPS because it actually imposed on his coworkers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale,” Shwartz stated.
At first, Groff’s supervisors in the Lancaster, Pa., office accommodated his request not to deliver mail on Sundays. But then the U.S. Postal Service entered into a contract with Amazon, agreeing to deliver the online retailer’s packages on Sunday, and Groff’s accommodation ended, as no one was available to cover his shift.
Postal Service supervisors offered several accommodations to the letter carrier, including allowing him time off to attend worship, after which he would report to work, or allowing him another day off to observe the Sabbath. The postmaster himself testified that he had to work on Sunday at times to cover Groff’s shift, as did other employees—a situation that purportedly contributed to morale problems and tension in the small post office.
Groff spent seven years working for the government but eventually resigned in January 2019 after being written up for not showing up for work on Sundays. He sued the Postal Service in May 2019 for violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a federal law that bars employers from discriminating based on age, sex, religion, or national origin. A lower court sided with the Postal Service in an April 2021 ruling.
In a dissent to last week’s ruling, Circuit Judge Thomas Hardiman, a George W. Bush appointee, rejected his fellow judges’ focus on the impact of Groff’s accommodation on other employees. “Title VII requires USPS to show how Groff’s accommodation would harm its business, not merely how it would impact Groff’s coworkers,” wrote Hardiman, noting that he would have sent the case back to the lower court to consider more facts as to how the accommodation would hurt the Postal Service’s business.
“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stayed Gerald Groff from the completion of his appointed rounds,” concluded Hardiman. “But his sincerely held religious belief precluded him from working on Sundays.”
Judges may have disagreed on whether undue hardship was shown, but in a statement obtained by the Courthouse News Service, Groff attorney Christopher Tutunjian pointed to what they agreed on—that measures only partially accommodating an employee’s religious beliefs did not go far enough to satisfy the law. “We are pleased with the Third Circuit’s unanimous holding that a ‘reasonable accommodation’ under Title VII must completely eliminate the work-religion conflict,” wrote Tutunjian. “This holding correctly addresses a circuit-splitting issue and will protect the religious rights of employees throughout the Circuit.”
Groff’s attorneys could seek a rehearing of the appeal by a full complement of the circuit court’s judges or appeal directly to the Supreme Court. In February 2020, the high court declined to review lower court rulings upholding retailer Walgreens’ right to fire employee Darrell Patterson, a Seventh-day Adventist, over a Saturday Sabbath accommodation. In an accompanying opinion, Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, said the Supreme Court should reconsider the de minimis standard.
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