Photo Credit: Jarek Tuszyński / Wikimedia
United States Supreme Court building in Washington DC, 2009

The US Supreme Court has decided to hear Groff v. DeJoy, a case involving workplace accommodations for a Sabbath observer.

The decision follows an effort last year by Agudath Israel and other Orthodox groups who joined a National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs (COLPA) brief, urging the Supreme Court to hear the case in hopes of reaching more meaningful accommodation of religious practices — including Sabbath observance — for American workers.

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The COLPA brief was authored by renowned constitutional attorney Nathan Lewin.

The Case
Gerald Groff, an evangelical Christian, was a Pennsylvania mailman. When Amazon contracted with the United States Postal Service (USPS) to deliver packages on Sundays, Groff, who observes Sunday as his Sabbath, was faced with a religious dilemma.

The mailman attempted to make arrangements with the USPS to avoid working Sundays by offering to work multiple make-up shifts and even by switching postal offices. However, the Postal Service deemed this insufficient and multiple disciplinary actions were taken against him.

Facing termination, Groff chose instead to resign from the USPS and then sued his former employer for failing to accommodate his sincerely-held religious beliefs.

He was unsuccessful, with both the district court and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruling against him on the basis that his absence on Sunday caused an “undue burden” to the USPS.

Trans World Airlines v. Hardison‘s Legacy
The courts’ ruling was based on an earlier Supreme Court ruling in Trans World Airlines v. Hardison, in which the Court weakly defined “undue burden” as only “more than de minimis cost,” meaning more than a “trivial burden.”

The brief by Lewin requested the Court overturn its previous ruling in the Hardison case, stating that “changes in American society and in the understanding of the Establishment Clause justify rejection and repudiation today of a legal rule that perpetrates great injustice and harm on Sunday-observing Christians like petitioner, and on Jewish, Moslem, and Seventh-Day Adventist members of America’s work force.”

The brief also noted that because of Hardison, religious employees have a harder time receiving legal accommodation than those who need accommodation on the basis of age, gender, disability, sexual orientation, pregnancy, and paternity.

Agudath Israel Welcomes Decision
“The history of American Jewry cannot be told without marking the struggle for Sabbath observance,” Rabbi David Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America said in welcoming the Supreme Court decision to hear the case.

“Due to Hardison, countless people have given up or even lost employment opportunities for jobs for which they were eminently qualified. Most of these cases were not even litigated because of the high bar set by Hardison.

“By agreeing to hear this case the Supreme Court has taken one step forward to rectifying this and protecting the religious liberties of Americans in the workforce.

“We are especially pleased to add Agudath Israel’s name to an amicus brief authored by the great champion of Orthodox Jewish legal rights, Nathan Lewin. For many decades, Mr. Lewin has been in the forefront of the battle to have the Supreme Court undo the harmful Hardisonde minimus’ standard and ensure broad legal protections for Sabbath observers in the workplace.

By agreeing to review the Groff case, the Supreme Court gives us hope that Mr. Lewin’s tireless efforts will finally be rewarded,” Zwiebel added.

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Hana Levi Julian is a Middle East news analyst with a degree in Mass Communication and Journalism from Southern Connecticut State University. A past columnist with The Jewish Press and senior editor at Arutz 7, Ms. Julian has written for Babble.com, Chabad.org and other media outlets, in addition to her years working in broadcast journalism.