Former postal worker Gerald E. Groff brought his case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit Tuesday, arguing that the postal service should be required to accommodate his religious beliefs by allowing him to have every Sunday off.
Groff is an Evangelical Christian and Sunday Sabbath observer. When he began working for the U.S. Postal Service in 2012 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, there was no problem with his work schedule. Later, however, Groff became a “Rural Carrier Associate” or “RCA,” (a position lacking set hours), and the USPS contracted with Amazon to deliver packages seven days a week.
At first, Groff simply negotiated a schedule with his supervisor whereby he worked extra shifts during the week and had Sundays off. Later, however, the National Rural Letter Carriers Union, of which Groff was a member, entered into a collective-bargaining agreement that applied to all RCAs. Under the terms of that agreement, all RCAs, including Groff, had to work on some Sundays, and no special exceptions would be made for Sabbath observers. Groff requested additional accommodation, and his supervisor permitted Groff to forego Sunday work so long as he found a replacement RCA to cover his shift.
Groff’s accommodation did not solve the problem, however, and he missed over two dozen of his assigned Sunday shifts. Knowing termination was likely imminent, Groff resigned from his position in 2019, then filed a federal lawsuit arguing that he had been a victim of discrimination in that the postal service failed to provide an appropriate accommodation.
U.S. District Judge Jeffrey L. Schmehl (a Barack Obama appointee) granted the defense’s motion for summary judgment, holding that Groff had failed to show he was treated differently with regard to Sunday work than any other employees had been treated, and that the postal service required Sunday work because it was important for business.
Not one decision-maker ever made a negative comment to Groff about his religion or his observance of it. All decision-makers denied anti-religious animus, and several of them were Christian themselves. Groff cannot prove pretext by suggesting or speculating that there was anti-Christian animus in the USPS. He must prove it and he clearly has not.
Similarly, there is certainly evidence that Sunday Amazon delivery was very important but challenging for Defendant, and that the USPS struggled to get RCA’s to work on Sundays. There is no evidence in the record of fabrication by Defendant. Accordingly, Groff cannot prove that Defendant’s reasons for his discipline were a pretext for discrimination and his disparate treatment claim must fail.
Groff appealed, and a three-judge panel of the Third Circuit heard oral arguments Tuesday. The panel included two-time Trump SCOTUS frontrunner that wasn’t, Circuit Judge Thomas Hardiman (a George W. Bush appointee), Circuit Judge Julio Fuentes (a Bill Clinton appointee), and Circuit Judge Patty Shwartz (a Barack Obama appointee).
At oral arguments, Assistant U.S. Attorney Veronica Finkelstein, arguing on behalf of the USPS, said Groff had been given a “reasonable accommodation” in the form of shift-swapping. Simply allowing Groff not to work on Sundays constituted an “undue burden” for the Postal Service, said Finkelstein, who explained that during high-volume delivery seasons, substitute employees were not readily available.
Attorney Christopher Tutunjian, arguing on behalf of Groff, faced a pointed question from Judge Fuentes. “Is there a Christian requirement that says all Christians can’t work on Sundays?” asked the judge. Tutunjian allowed that his client’s refusal to work on Sundays amounted to a preference as opposed to a requirement.
First Liberty Institute, the religious-liberty advocacy group that provided representation for Groff, provided an email statement to Law&Crime Wednesday.
“No American should be forced to choose between their religion and their job,” said Hiram Sasser, Executive General Counsel at First Liberty. “Gerald was willing to work additional shifts on days other than Sunday, but his deeply held religious beliefs requiring him to honor the Sabbath. The USPS should have recognized Gerald’s sincerely held belief that he must observe the Sunday Sabbath and granted him a religious exemption.”
In an email to Law&Crime Wednesday, Tutunjian also remarked about the case’s likely trajectory toward SCOTUS:
We appreciated the panel’s thorough examination of this case, with probing questions for both advocates. As the panel’s questioning highlighted, this case raises important, circuit-splitting issues that will ultimately need to be resolved by the Supreme Court.
The dispute, which tests the ever-deepening divide over the role of religious accommodations in the workplace, is one that the justices may well opt to consider.
You can listen to full oral arguments here.
[image via Scott Olson/Getty Images]
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