Giving an evangelical Christian mail carrier off every Sunday, as he wanted, created an “undue hardship” on the Postal Service, a federal appeals panel court ruled Wednesday in upholding the dismissal of the Quarryville man’s lawsuit.
Gerald E. Groff refused to work Sundays, citing the Fourth Commandment to “remember the Sabbath and keep it holy,” but the Postal Service said it couldn’t give him all Sundays off.
In his 2019 suit claiming religious discrimination, Groff claimed the Postal Service’s failure to give him all Sundays off violated the Civil Rights Act’s requirement to “reasonably accommodate” a person’s sincerely held religious beliefs.
Instead, the Postal Service offered to allow Groff to swap with co-workers. However, on 24 Sundays between March 2017 and May 2018, Groff couldn’t find a co-worker to swap with, but he didn’t come in to work.
Groff was disciplined and ultimately resigned in January 2019, saying he believed he would be fired.
Randall Wenger, chief counsel of Harrisburg-based Independence Law Center, which represents Groff, was disappointed in the ruling.
“Nobody should be forced to choose between their religion and their job, which is essentially what Gerald Groff was asked to do,” Wenger said Thursday. “This is not a guy who is trying to manipulate the system.”
Wenger said Groff’s legal team was considering its next step, which could be an appeal to the full Third Circuit Court of Appeals, or to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Wenger said the Supreme Court has signaled an interest in the issue of undue hardship.
The Civil Rights Act requires that employers reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious belief unless doing so would create an undue hardship on an employer’s business.
In dismissing the suit in favor of the Postal Service in April 2021, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Schmehl found that giving Groff all Sundays off would create an undue hardship.
Two Third Circuit judges agreed in their opinion Wednesday.
They found that exempting Groff from Sunday work “disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale at both the Holtwood Post Office (where Groff worked) and the Lancaster Annex hub.”
At times, Holtwood’s postmaster had to deliver mail on Sundays and the postmaster testified during proceedings in the case that other “carriers were being forced to cover (Groff’s) shifts and give up their family time, their ability to attend church services if they would have liked to,” and these additional demands “created a tense atmosphere” with other carriers, according to the appeals court’s opinion.
In a dissenting opinion, Judge Thomas Hardiman wrote the Postal Service didn’t prove its business suffered an undue hardship and said he would have sent the case back to the trial court to decide that issue.
“Simply put, a burden on coworkers isn’t the same thing as a burden on the employer’s business,” Hardiman wrote.
Wenger, Groff’s attorney, also noted that the Postal Service had accommodated Groff for some time.
Sunday work began in 2015 when the Postal Service began delivering for Amazon, but Groff, who started in 2012, was able to avoid it by transferring from the Quarryville to Holtwood post office. Starting in 2017, Sunday work was required in Quarryville, too.
“That’s one of the peculiar things about this case,” Wenger said. “They made it work, then they decided not to make it work.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, which represented the Postal Service, declined to comment.