Supreme Court takes up Christian postal worker's religious claim

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear an evangelical Christian mail carrier’s employment discrimination claim in a case that could force employers to do more to accommodate the religious practices of their workers.

The justices will hear an appeal brought by Gerald Groff, who says the U.S. Postal Service could have granted his request that he be spared Sunday shifts based on his religious belief that it is a day of worship and rest.

Groff has asked the court to make it easier for employees to bring religious claims under Title VII of the Civil Right Act, which prohibits workplace discrimination of various forms, including based on religion.

Groff worked as an auxiliary mailman in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, area from 2012 to 2019, when he resigned. A noncareer employee, his job was to fill in when other workers were not available, including on weekends and holidays.

Initially he was not asked work on Sundays, but the situation began to change in 2015 due to the requirement that Amazon packages be delivered on that day. Based on his request for an accommodation, his managers arranged for other postal workers to deliver packages on Sundays until July 2018. After that, Groff faced disciplinary actions if he did not report to work.

Upon resigning, he sued the Postal Service for failing to accommodate his request. A federal judge said that the Postal Service had provided a reasonable accommodation and that offering anything more than that would cause undue hardship to the employer and his co-workers. The Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed in a May 2022 ruling.

Groff is asking the justices to reassess what constitutes “undue hardship” under Title VII, saying that the approach imposed by a 1977 Supreme Court ruling called Trans World Airlines v. Hardison is not sufficiently favorable to employees and allows religious needs to be supplanted by the interests of employers. In the earlier ruling, the court said that employers are not required to make accommodation if it would impose even a minimal burden.

The court in 2020, when it had a 5-4 conservative majority, declined to hear a similar case involving an employee at a Walgreens call center who, as a Seventh Day Adventist, requested that he not work on Saturday, which is that Christian denomination’s day of rest.

Three of the conservative justices, however, issued a statement at the time saying they were open to the idea of revisiting the 1977 ruling’s definition of “undue hardship.”  Soon after that case was rejected, liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died and then-President Donald Trump appointed conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett, creating a 6-3 conservative majority even more favorable to religious claims.

After Barrett joined the court, the justices in 2021 turned away several cases asking them to revisit the 1977 ruling, but the court has ruled in favor of religious claims in various other cases, including several in its last term, which ended in June. Among those rulings, the court ruled in favor of a public high school football coach who claimed he lost his job after leading prayers on the field after games.