In June, the Supreme Court announced major decisions on affirmative action, redistricting, student loans, immigration enforcement, free speech and religious freedom. On the last, the justices of the often deeply divided court decided unanimously to strengthen anti-discrimination protections against religious believers in the workplace.
In Groff v. DeJoy, the nine justices all determined in favor of an evangelical Christian from rural Pennsylvania, Gerald Groff, whom the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) had unsuccessfully forced to work on Sundays in violation of his religious belief at the risk of losing his job. The Court said that employers should grant religious accommodation requests unless they would impose a “undue hardship” on the employer that would be “substantial in the context of an employer’s business.”
Experts say that the decision will impact not only believers in general not to be compelled to work on religious holy days in violation of their faith but also to dress according to their religious beliefs, from kippahs to headscarves and hijabs, to habits and crucifixes. They add that it will likewise provide a different standard by which to evaluate employees’ requests to take short prayer breaks during the day or to refuse vaccines on religious grounds, pharmacists’ petitions to ask for workarounds not to have to fill prescriptions for contraceptive or abortifacient drugs, medical staff’s appeals for Sunday shifts that permit attending Mass, and teachers’ entreaties to be exempt from referring to students by pronouns not corresponding to their biological sex — all of which can make it harder for religious believers to obtain and maintain jobs.
Now, employees who feel that their requests for religious accommodation are not being seriously considered in the workplace will have much stronger cases to take their employers to court should the employers not take steps to find solutions that would not constitute a substantial hardship for the business.
Prior to Groff, the deck was stacked in favor of employers, who only needed to show that making such a religious accommodation would require them to “bear more than a de minimis cost,” meaning a small or trifling burden. That lower standard came, Justice Samuel Alito wrote in Groff, from an erroneous interpretation of a 1977 Supreme Court Case, TWA v. Hardison, which was deemed by some lower courts to define “undue hardship” in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act according to a minimalist standard of burden. That low bar was used by various employers to discriminate against religious employees in ways that never happen to other protected groups. Alito clarified that “hardship” means “something hard to bear,” and “undue” means “excessive” or “unjustifiable.” He wrote that employers now “must show that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.”
While the decision is very good news for people of faith in the workplace, one question is whether Christian people of faith will seek to take advantage of it, particularly as it relates to work on Sunday.
The case of Gerald Groff can provide an examination of conscience.
Groff began working for the USPS in 2012 out of the Quarryville, Pennsylvania post office. At the time, the USPS did not deliver on Sundays. In 2013, however, the USPS signed a contract with Amazon to deliver on Sunday. Groff requested a transfer to Holtwood, a small rural post office that at the time did not make Sunday deliveries. When in 2017, Holtwood likewise had to begin making Sunday deliveries, Groff offered to take extra shifts on holidays and extra shifts on weekdays to avoid working on Sunday. But when eventually other members of the small staff complained, Groff was required to work on Sunday and was progressively disciplined for not violating his conscience and coming to work. When the penalties brought him to the verge of being terminated, in January 2019, he resigned and a few months later sued the USPS under Title VII. The June Supreme Court decision didn’t decide ultimately in his favor but sent his case back to the lower courts to determine, with the newly clarified standard, whether granting him an accommodation would be an undue substantial burden to the business of the USPS.
In fidelity to the commandment to keep holy the Lord’s day, Groff was willing to shift work places, volunteer for double shifts and national holidays, to lose his job and to go through the vicissitudes of a multiyear legal battle. How much are Catholic Christians willing to do?
In May this year the Church marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of St. John Paul II’s apostolic letter Dies Domini on keeping the Lord’s Day holy. In it, John Paul II urged Catholics to remember that to keep the Lord’s Day holy involves not just Sunday Mass, prayer and works of charity, but also “abstention from work.”
God gave the Third Commandment, he reminded us, because the Israelites were once slaves in Egypt, implying that to do nonessential work on the sabbath is to be enslaved either to the work itself or to what it might provide. Imitating God’s rest on the seventh day, he said, is indeed “something sacred” and restorative, especially for those in poorer circumstances, who are often oppressed by long hours as well as miserable, unjust and exploitative working conditions. He summarized that Christians “are obliged in conscience to arrange their Sunday rest in a way that allows them to take part in the Eucharist, refraining from work and activities that are incompatible with the sanctification of the Lord’s Day.”
To restate the Third Commandment’s prohibition of “work or activities that hinder the worship owed to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s Day, the performance of the works of mercy, and the appropriate relaxation of mind and body” (Catechism 2185) is not to become like the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, or some Orthodox Jews of our own age, who specify how far one can walk, how much one can lift, or whether one can flip on or off a light switch on the Sabbath day. But it is to express the Sabbath’s sacred value and to try to ensure that it is not lost in the midst of a consumerist age prone to the ancient worship of the golden calf and to underemphasizing or forgetting altogether the human person’s spiritual needs.
The freedom that the Sabbath is meant to express and reinforce is often freely squandered when Christians use that freedom to yoke themselves with unnecessary work on Sunday, from teens working at supermarkets and convenience stores, to adults enticed by premium pay in factories, to nonessential workers forced to work to deliver packages that somehow can’t wait until Monday. Sabbath work gradually grinds down individuals, weakens family, and changes culture for the worse.
But how many Christians have the faith, courage and firm and formed conscience like Gerald Groff to refuse to do unnecessary work on Sunday?
As we mark this week our nation’s Independence and celebrate with gratitude our hard-won freedom, we remember that it was for freedom that we were set free and, therefore, should not squander our freedom by using it to submit to the yoke of slavery (Gal 5:1).
Now that the Supreme Court has unanimously stated that employers need to make religious accommodations unless they pose a major burden on the company’s bottom line, how many will ask for such reasonable accommodation and stick to them if their bosses or human resource directors are slow to acknowledge and grant them?
In an age that prioritizes mammon over God, how many Christians will have the courage to live Sunday as Christians?