Gerald Groff sues Postal Service over religious accommodations

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A U.S. Postal Service delivery truck shown making deliveries.

former postman Gerald E. Groff took his case to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit on Tuesday, arguing that the Postal Service should be required to accommodate his religious beliefs by allowing him to have all Sundays off.

Groff is an evangelical Christian and a Sunday Sabbathkeeper. When he started working for the US Postal Service in 2012 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, there were no problems with his work schedule. Later, however, Groff became a “Rural Carrier Associate” or “RCA” (a position with no 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 that he worked extra shifts during the week and had Sundays off. Later, however, the National Union of Rural Mail Carriers, of which Groff was a member, concluded a collective agreement that applied to all RCAs. Under the terms of this agreement, all RCAs, including Groff, were to work certain Sundays, and no special exceptions would be made for Sabbathkeepers. Groff requested additional accommodation, and his supervisor allowed Groff to forgo Sunday work as long as he found a replacement ACR to cover his shift.

Groff’s housing did not solve the problem, however, and he missed more than two dozen of his Sunday shifts. Knowing that layoff was likely imminent, Groff resigned from his position in 2019 and then filed a federal lawsuit arguing he had been discriminated against in that the Postal Service had failed to provide proper housing.

U.S. District Judge Jeffrey L. Schmehl (a barack obama named person) granted the defense’s motion for summary judgment, finding that Groff had failed to demonstrate that he was treated any differently with respect to Sunday work than any other employee had been treated, and that the Postal Service required Sunday work because it was important for business.

Schmehl wrote:

No decision-maker has ever made a negative comment to Groff about his religion or observance. All of the makers denied any anti-religious animosity, and several of them were themselves Christians. Groff cannot prove the pretext by suggesting or speculating that there was anti-Christian animosity within the USPS. He has to prove it and he obviously hasn’t.

Likewise, there is certainly evidence that Amazon Sunday delivery was very important but difficult for the defendant, and that the USPS had difficulty getting the RCAs to work on Sundays. There is no evidence in the record of manufacture by the defendant. Accordingly, Groff cannot prove that the defendant’s reasons for his discipline were a pretext for discrimination and his claim for disparate treatment must fail.

Groff appealed, and a panel of three Third Circuit judges heard oral argument on Tuesday. The panel included twice Trump favorite SCOTUS who was not, the circuit judge Thomas Hardimann (a George W. Bush appointed), circuit judge Julio Fuentes (a bill clinton appointed) and circuit judge Patty Shwartz (a person appointed by Barack Obama).

During oral argument, the Assistant United States Attorney Veronique Finkelstein, arguing on behalf of the USPS, said Groff received “reasonable accommodation” in the form of an exchange of shifts. Simply allowing Groff off work on Sundays was an “undue burden” on the Postal Service, said Finkelstein, who explained that during high-volume delivery seasons, replacement employees were not easily available.

Attorney Christopher Tutunjian, arguing on behalf of Groff, was faced with a pointed question from Judge Fuentes. “Is there a Christian requirement that all Christians cannot work on Sundays?” asked the judge. Tutunjian admitted that his client’s refusal to work on Sundays amounted to a preference rather than a requirement.

First Liberty Institute, the religious liberty advocacy group that provided Groff’s representation, provided a statement by email to Law&Crime on Wednesday.

“No American should have to choose between his religion and his job,” said Hiram Sasser, executive general counsel at First Liberty. “Gerald was willing to work extra shifts on days other than Sunday, but his deeply held religious beliefs compelled him to honor the Sabbath. The USPS should have recognized Gerald’s sincere belief that he should observe the Sunday Sabbath and granted him a religious exemption.

In an email to Law&Crime on Wednesday, Tutunjian also remarked on the case’s likely trajectory to SCOTUS:

We appreciated the panel’s in-depth review of this case, with probing questions for both attorneys. As the panel’s questions pointed out, this case raises important circuit division issues that will ultimately have 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 the justices may well choose to consider.

You can listen to the full pleadings here.

[image via Scott Olson/Getty Images]

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