Supreme Court Protects Religious Employees| National Catholic Register

Catholics should be grateful for the Supreme Court, which is restoring normalcy to Constitutional interpretation.

The Supreme Court’s affirmative action decision on Thursday overshadowed another important case decided that day: Groff v. DeJoy. That decision deserves Catholic attention because it upheld a robust right of religious freedom for employees.

Gerald Groff is an Evangelical Christian and a mailman. His faith demands he not work on Sunday. He took a job in a rural Pennsylvania post office because it did not work on Sundays.

Then Amazon came along and, because the U.S. Postal Service is technically an independent agency, the latter signed a contract with Amazon for Sunday package delivery. Groff did all he could to avoid what he deemed violating the Sabbath. He traded time with other employees. He put in extra weekday hours to compensate.

But, in the end, the Postal Service ordered him to work on Sundays. He requested a religious accommodation, provided by federal law. The Postal Service, relying on a 1977 Supreme Court case that said the government did not have to accommodate religious exemptions if it decided the cost or effort would be more than trivial (“de minimis”), refused. So Groff quit … and sued.

On June 29, the Supreme Court declared what the First Amendment really means: the Constitution actually affirmatively protects religious freedom. The free exercise of religion is not just one among a number of rights — it’s the first right enumerated in the First Amendment. That means religious claims are not just another “interest” competing on an equal footing with others, e.g., Amazon Prime’s Sunday delivery profit margins, but a privileged right to which other interests must accommodate. The Court abandoned the de minimis test. 

The Court sent the case back to a lower court for further review. In theory, Groff could still lose, but he has far better chances because the Postal Service will have to prove that it made real, not just nominal, efforts to accommodate him, just as he made real efforts to observe Sunday while finding other ways to carry his weight as a letter carrier. The burden is not wholly on the employee, whose sincere efforts can be wiped away in an instant by an employer claiming it’s too much time, money or effort to accommodate religious workers. 

That’s important because up until now, religious exemptions have been treated in some measure as a necessary evil whose accommodation employers could, in practice, evade by appealing to the “important stuff,” i.e., their bottom line. A Postal Service in search of additional revenues doesn’t want to offend Amazon. It doesn’t care whether its employees might be offending a higher authority: they have no contracts with him. The precedent hopefully will also even the playing field in terms of public religious expression — there have already been cases in Canada and Europe banning employees from even wearing crosses on neck chains or lapels. All other “identities” but the religious are okay in the workplace.

Catholics should be grateful for our Supreme Court, which is restoring normalcy to Constitutional interpretation. At the same time, one party has gotten away somewhat scot-free in this case: Amazon. Perhaps Catholics, whose consciousness of the holiness of the Lord’s Day has seriously eroded, need to ask themselves whether shopping on Sunday — be it at the mall or online at 2:38am Saturday to Sunday night with “same day delivery” — is really necessary. Can you live without your mucho-jumbo-frothy-super-latte Keurig cups till Monday?

May 31 was the 25th anniversary of Dies Domini, Pope St. John Paul II’s apostolic letter on keeping the Lord’s Day holy. Catholics should reread it, and Catholic priests should address it some Sunday … even if, post-COVID, that means largely talking to the choir.

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