Supreme Court backs Christian worker who wanted Sundays off in case that may have wide impact

John Fritze

WASHINGTON − The Supreme Court on Thursday sided with an evangelical Christian worker who was denied requests to take Sundays off from his post office job to observe his Sabbath, a decision that could have wide-ranging implications for the American workplace.

While the court did not overrule a precedent that set when employers must make accommodations for religious employees, it did "explain the contours" of that decision in way that may be more beneficial to employees.

The ruling is one of the most closely watched religious cases this term and was one of two major decisions − the court struck down affirmative action policies at Harvard and the University of North Carolina − announced by the Supreme Court on Thursday as a historic term moves to its end.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote the opinion for a unanimous court. The decision sends the case back to lower courts.

At the center of the case is Gerald Groff, a former U.S. Postal Service employee who wanted to take Sundays off for church and rest. That presented a scheduling conflict – and a burden on his colleagues, the government argued – after the Postal Service started delivering Amazon packages on Sundays.

Groff’s attorneys had asked the Supreme Court to toss out a 1977 precedent that made it easier for some companies to deny such requests. The earlier case said that businesses could avoid meeting religious requests if the cost of doing so would be more than a "de minimis," or trivial, amount.

"An employer must show that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business," Alito wrote.

The decision could affect other situations where religion and workplace rules conflict, such as for religious dress. Some worried the case could also affect religious conduct at work, giving employees more leeway to exercise their personal views even if they were inconsistent with those held by their employers or colleagues.

“This is a landmark victory, not only for Gerald, but for every American,” said Kelly Shackelford, President of First Liberty Institute, which represented Groff. “No American should be forced to choose between their faith and their job.”

Groff, in a statement, said he was grateful for the outcome.

"I hope this decision allows others to be able to maintain their convictions without living in fear of losing their jobs because of what they believe,” he said.

Rachel Laser, president of the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, noted the court clarified its standard rather than overturning it.

“We’re facing an aggressive movement working to weaponize religious freedom, but religious freedom must never be a license to harm others, and that remains true in the workplace," she said.

A U.S. District Court and the Philadelphia-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit sided with the Postal Service.

Dig deeper'Wolf in sheep's clothing'? How a USPS worker's fight over Sunday shifts could change your workplace.

Groff, 45, started at the Postal Service after years of missionary work in Africa and Asia. He wanted a career that would allow him to keep his Sabbath, and since mail isn’t delivered on Sundays, the job seemed to be a safe bet. Everything changed when the USPS signed a contract with Amazon in 2013 to deliver packages on weekends.

His supervisors initially exempted Groff from working Sundays as long as he covered other shifts. But their attempts to find volunteers for those days didn’t always work, and by 2018, Groff had missed 24 Sunday shifts. Disciplinary measures began mounting. 

"I lived under a cloud of thinking any day I could report to work ... and then be told that I was terminated," Groff, a Pennsylvanian who resigned from the Postal Service in 2019, told USA TODAY in April. "Two years of just pretty much every day was tough."

Former USPS employee Gerald Groff.