The legal team representing an evangelical Christian postal worker who quit the U.S. Postal Service after it refused to accommodate his wish not to work on the Sunday Sabbath is “optimistic” about the case the Supreme Court will hear next month.
Over the opposition of the Biden administration, the court agreed on Jan. 13 to take up the civil rights lawsuit of Gerald Groff, who began working as a mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service in 2012. The granting of the petition earlier this year came as the high court has become increasingly protective of First Amendment-based religious protections in recent years.
Groff was what is called a rural carrier associate, meaning he filled in for absent career employees.
Groff worked at the Quarryville, Pennsylvania, post office until he transferred to the Holtwood post office in August 2016. The postal service initially tried to accommodate his request not to work on Sundays, but he quit in 2019 after the agency stopped accommodating him. He sued, claiming the postal service discriminated against him by refusing to accommodate his religion under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which was originally passed in 1964, but was amended in 1972 to require employers to provide reasonable accommodation for religious employees.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit turned down Groff’s appeal last year, finding that exempting him from Sunday work, as he had asked, would have imposed an undue hardship on the postal service.
Title VII generally prohibits an employer from discriminating against an individual because of that individual’s religion. The law defines “religion” to include “all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief, unless an employer demonstrates that he is unable to reasonably accommodate to an employee’s or prospective employee’s religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.”
But in 1977, the Supreme Court narrowed the application of the religious provision. In Trans World Airlines (TWA) v. Hardison (1977), the court held that an employer suffers an “undue hardship” in accommodating an employee’s religious exercise whenever doing so would require the employer “to bear more than a de minimis cost.”
Oral arguments in Groff v. DeJoy, court file 22-174, are scheduled for April 18. The respondent, Louis DeJoy, is the U.S. postmaster general.
Stephanie N. Taub, senior counsel with First Liberty Institute, which is co-counsel representing Groff, said the case “gives the Supreme Court the opportunity to restore religious liberty in the workplace.”
The case “turns on what the legal standard is for when employers are required to grant religious accommodations to people of faith,” Taub told The Epoch Times in an interview.
Attorneys for Groff are asking the court to interpret “undue hardship on the business in the way that it interprets it in other employment discrimination statutes,” she said.
Such a move would “really restore religious liberty rights for employees across the country to what Congress intended when it passed the Civil Rights Act,” she said.
“We are optimistic” about the case, Taub said.
“It’s a pretty modest ask. We’re asking the court to return the standard to what Congress intended” when it amended the law in 1972 to make it clear that it wanted “religious diversity to be respected,” she said.
Congress wanted employers “to be incentivized to grant meaningful religious accommodations to people of faith, and then it was gutted by … TWA v. Hardison in the 1970s. And so now, we’re asking the court to just interpret the language the way it does … in other employment discrimination statutes to make it clear that this is what Congress means when it uses this language.”
“So it’s a pretty straightforward argument that does have the potential to really restore these religious workplace protections,” Taub said.
The problem is that lower courts have followed the Hardison ruling, allowing employers to “point to a minimal burden … in order to justify not granting religious accommodation. Whereas if you have a plain reading of the statute, employers would have to point to a significant difficulty or expense in order to excuse not granting religious accommodations.”
Taub’s comments came as 30 friend-of-the-court briefs supporting Groff were filed in the case on Feb. 28. Among the filing parties were a bloc of 22 states including West Virginia and Louisiana, the American Constitutional Rights Union, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the Thomas More Society, the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty, and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
One brief (pdf) was filed by federal lawmakers including Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), James Lankford (R-Okla), Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), along with Reps. Jeff Duncan and Ralph Norman, both South Carolina Republicans. The document encouraged the court to reconsider the Hardison ruling.
In Hardison, the Supreme Court advanced an interpretation of the law that “no party advanced” and it “has severely impacted the very individuals the 1972 amendments were meant to protect the most,” the lawmakers’ brief states.
The ruling “has been a thorn in the side of religious adherents seeking to honor their religious convictions while also maintaining gainful employment.”
In Groff’s case, the ruling has had a “disastrous legacy stripping a devout Christian of his job for observing the Sabbath while leaving his employer unscathed, contrary to the text and purpose of the 1972 amendments to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” the brief states.
The Epoch Times reached out to the U.S. Department of Justice for comment on Groff’s petition but has not received a reply.
U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar filed a brief (pdf) with the court in November 2022 saying the government has previously asked the justices to review Hardison but that Groff’s case would be “a poor vehicle” for such review because he “would not be entitled to relief under any plausible standard for ‘undue hardship.’”