What do companies owe to employees who observe the Sabbath?
The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to consider that question by taking up a case brought by an evangelical Christian who resigned from the U.S. Postal Service after facing pressure to work on Sunday.
Gerald Groff’s troubles with USPS began in 2013, when the Postal Service signed a contract to deliver Amazon packages. The contract made Sunday deliveries much more common, complicating Groff’s efforts to spend his Sabbath away from work.
For several years, Groff was still able to avoid Sunday shifts. First, he transferred to a post office that did not yet do Sunday deliveries. Then, when they started doing them, he agreed to take extra shifts during the week to make up for his weekend absence.
Eventually, the situation became unsustainable and Groff’s bosses said further accommodations were not possible. “Facing termination, Groff chose to resign, and sued USPS in federal court for refusing to accommodate his religious beliefs and practices under Title VII,” SCOTUSblog reported in its overview of the case.
Title VII, which is part of the Civil Rights Act, outlaws faith-based discrimination in the workplace. It also mandates that employers accommodate employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs, so long as requested accommodations do not place an “undue hardship” on the business.
In past legal battles, courts have regularly sided with employers, making it seem as almost any request could be interpreted as an undue hardship. That’s one reason why legal experts believed companies had the upper hand in religion-related conflict over COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
“The Supreme Court has interpreted undue hardship to mean anything more than a minimal expense,” wrote Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Virginia, for The Conversation in 2021.
Citing past rulings, lower court judges ruled against Groff, arguing that the USPS had done enough to try to accommodate him. Doing more would have imposed on his coworkers, they said.
Groff appealed to the Supreme Court for help. Now, the justices have agreed to hear his case and reconsider past interpretations of the “undue hardship” standard.
In a statement, Groff’s attorneys celebrated Friday’s announcement, arguing that the time has come for the court to boost protections for religious workers.
“Workers have suffered too long with the Supreme Court’s interpretation that disrespects the rights of those with sincere faith commitments to a workplace accommodation. It’s long past time for the Supreme Court to protect workers from religious discrimination,” said Alan Reinach from Church State Council, one of the firms representing Groff, in the statement.