“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
Long regarded the unofficial motto of the U.S. Postal Service, this iconic phrase omits a modern challenge to what actually would stop mail service. The issue of delivery on Sunday recently became the center of a Supreme Court challenge presented by employee Gerald Groff, who cited religious obligation as grounds for his objection to being required to work on the traditional day of worship.
Groff, an evangelical Christian, claimed the postal service failed to reasonably accommodate his religious beliefs in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. His branch post office was closed on Sundays at his time of hire 11 years ago, but the issue came to light in 2016 as deliveries extended to all seven days of the week in response to a nationwide increase in online shopping tendencies.
Groff was told he would be required to work Sunday nights during the holiday rush but was transferred to an alternate location that did not deliver on Sundays in response to his objection. However, the alternate worksite also began Sunday package delivery. Despite being offered a chance to pray before his Sunday shift, he declined to show up for work and, while a coworker covered his Sunday shift for a time, the issue ultimately resulted in disciplinary action. Groff ultimately resigned and filed a lawsuit claiming disparate treatment and failure to accommodate.
The federal district court and the Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit ruled in favor of the U.S. Postal Service on the basis that the requested accommodation created undue hardship for the business, and therefore the post office did not have to provide it. Groff appealed and argued the requested accommodation was merely an inconvenience to colleagues but did not create “significant costs or difficulty” for the employer, and therefore was not an undue hardship. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case on April 18, 2023.
Currently, the undue hardship test for purposes of evaluating requested religious accommodations requires a showing by the employer of more than a hypothetical cost, but less than what is required under the ADA. If overturned, the case poses the risk of a significant shift in obligations for employers in the realm of religious accommodations, which would result in a negative impact on employers with respect to potential liability in this area.
Employers should be aware of the pending outcome of the case and work with legal counsel to ensure compliance in the event of a reversal of past precedent.
* This article first appeared in The Journal Record on June 2, 2023, and is reproduced with permission from the publisher.