WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court agreed to hear an evangelical Christian mail carrier’s employment discrimination claim on Friday, in a case that could force employers to do more to accommodate their employees’ religious practises.
The justices will hear an appeal filed by Gerald Groff, who claims that the US Postal Service could have granted his request to be excused from working on Sundays because he believes it is a day of worship and rest.
Groff has asked the court to make it easier for employees to file religious claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits various types of workplace discrimination, including religious discrimination.
Groff worked as an auxiliary mailman in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, area from 2012 until his resignation in 2019. His job as a non-career employee was to fill in when other workers were unavailable, including on weekends and holidays.
Initially, he was not required to work on Sundays, but this began to change in 2015 due to Amazon’s requirement that packages be delivered on that day. His managers arranged for other postal workers to deliver packages on Sundays until July 2018 in response to his request for an accommodation. Groff faced disciplinary action if he did not report to work after that.
He sued the Postal Service after resigning for failing to accommodate his request. According to a federal judge, the Postal Service provided a reasonable accommodation and that providing anything more would cause undue hardship to the employer and his coworkers. In a ruling issued in May 2022, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia agreed.
Groff is asking the Supreme Court to reconsider what constitutes “undue hardship” under Title VII, claiming that the approach imposed by a 1977 Supreme Court decision called Trans World Airlines v. Hardison is not sufficiently favourable to employees and allows employers’ interests to trump religious needs. The court previously stated that employers are not required to make accommodations if it would impose even a minor burden.
The court declined to hear a similar case in 2020, when it had a 5-4 conservative majority, involving an employee at a Walgreens call centre who, as a Seventh Day Adventist, requested that he not work on Saturday, the Christian denomination’s day of rest.
Three conservative justices, however, issued a statement at the time saying they were open to revisiting the definition of “undue hardship” in the 1977 ruling. Shortly after that case was dismissed, liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, and then-President Donald Trump appointed conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett, resulting in a 6-3 conservative majority that was even more favourable to religious claims.
After Barrett joined the court, the justices turned down several cases asking them to reconsider the 1977 ruling in 2021, but the court has ruled in favour of religious claims in a variety of other cases, including several in its most recent term, which ended in June. Among those decisions, the court sided with a public high school football coach who claimed he was fired for leading prayers on the field after games.