Supreme Court to deliver answer in Pennsylvania religious mailman's case
Gerald Groff liked his work as a postal employee in Pennsylvania's Amish Country. For years, he delivered mail and all manner of packages: a car bumper, a mini refrigerator, a 70-pound box of horseshoes for a blacksmith. But when an Amazon.com contract with the Postal Service required carriers to start delivering packages on Sundays, Groff balked. A Christian, he told his employers that he couldn't deliver packages on the Lord's Day.
Now Groff's dispute with the Post Office has reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which will consider his case Tuesday. Lower courts have sided with the Post Office, which says Groff's demand for Sundays off meant extra work for other employees and caused tension. Groff, for his part, argues employers can too easily reject employees' requests for religious accommodations, and if he wins, that could change.
“We really can’t go back and change what happened to me,” said Groff, who ultimately quit his job over the Sunday shifts. But he says that other people “shouldn’t have to choose between their job and their faith.”
Groff’s case involves Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits religious discrimination in employment. The law requires employers to accommodate employees’ religious practices unless doing so would be an “undue hardship” for the business.
Groff grew up in Lancaster County, where he attended Mennonite schools and lived in a home across the street from his grandparents' farm. His grandfather's death around the time he graduated from high school was a turning point for him, he said, and helped motivate him to work as a missionary. While he has a college degree in biology, over the years he has gone on eight mission trips lasting anywhere from two months to two years that took him to Asia, Africa and Latin America.
He did different jobs in between but in 2012 he found a job at the Post Office, regularly filling in as a mail carrier when other carriers were off or sick.
“I just really enjoyed the job from the very beginning. You get to be out in the countryside, in the fresh air ... It’s a beautiful place to live and work and I just really enjoyed it and planned to make a career of it unless God called me back to the mission field somewhere,” said Groff of his job as a rural carrier associate.
As a fill-in mail carrier he ultimately learned 22 different routes, which he would drive in his Honda CR-V, hitting 500 to 800 mailboxes a day. Eventually, he hoped to become a regular mail carrier, with a set route of his own.
Soon after Groff joined the Post Office, however, it signed a contract with Amazon to deliver packages on Sundays. And about four years into the job Groff was told he'd have to start working his share of Sunday shifts. Groff said no. Sunday, he says, is “a day we come together as Christian believers and we honor the Lord’s Day.”
“And so to give that up, to deliver Amazon packages would be to give up everything that we believe in,” Groff said.
To avoid Sunday work, Groff gave up his seniority at the Post Office in rural Quarryville, Pennsylvania, where the parking lot includes two spaces labeled “HORSE AND CARRIAGE ONLY.” He transferred to a smaller office in nearby Holtwood, which was not yet doing Sunday deliveries. Eventually, however, Sunday deliveries were required there too.
Groff told his supervisor he'd work extra shifts and holidays to avoid Sundays. The supervisor tried to find other carriers for Groff's Sunday shifts, even though finding substitutes was time consuming and not always possible. Groff's absences, meanwhile, created a tense environment, led to resentment toward management and contributed to morale problems, officials said. It also meant other carriers had to work more Sundays or sometimes deliver more Sunday mail than they otherwise would. One carrier transferred and another resigned in part because of the situation, Groff's supervisor said.
Eventually, however, Groff missed enough Sundays that he was disciplined. He resigned in 2019 rather than wait to be fired, he said, and then filed a religious discrimination lawsuit.
Groff says that under a 1977 Supreme Court case, Trans World Airlines v. Hardison, employers don't have to show much to prove an undue hardship and can deny religious accommodations to employees when they impose “more than a de minimis cost” on the business. The case was 7-2 in favor of TWA with both liberals and conservatives in the majority.
But Groff's lawyer Hiram Sasser of the First Liberty Institute says the Hardison case “sort of stacked the deck against employees and the common folk.” “They’ve got to climb Mount Kilimanjaro to try to win one of their cases, and, I mean, that's not right,” he said.
Groff wants the Supreme Court to say that employers must show “significant difficulty or expense” if they want to reject a religious accommodation.
Biden administration lawyers representing the Post Office say Hardison should be clarified to make clear it gives substantial protection for religious observance. But the administration also says that when accommodating the religious practices of one employee negatively impacts other employees, that can be an undue hardship on a business.
Groff would seem to have the upper hand. Three current justices — Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch — have said the court should reconsider Hardison. And in recent years the court's conservative majority has been particularly sympathetic to the concerns of religious plaintiffs.
Last year, for example, the court sided with another one of First Liberty's clients, a football coach at a public high school who wanted to be able to kneel and pray on the field after games.
Groff, for his part, has found other work since leaving the Post Office. These days, he's essentially the postmaster for a retirement community with several thousand residents. He oversees a staff of volunteer residents that sorts mail and puts it in mailboxes every day except Sunday.
There are no Sunday deliveries to Groff's home either. He says he went in and disabled them on Amazon.
“I can wait for that stuff,” he said. “And if I need it that bad, I’ll go to the store and get it.”