The Supreme Court heard a case this morning regarding the religious observance of former mailman Gerald Groff. The evangelical Christian started work at the United States Postal Service in 2012, expecting that he could practice his religion while maintaining employment at a branch in Quarryville, Pennsylvania, a town with a population of 2500.
But then Amazon came along. The corporate behemoth entered into a negotiated service agreement with the Post Office in October 2013 that would require Post Office employees to deliver Amazon deliveries on Sundays. After years of trying to work with the post office (including Groff’s willingness to work extra hours on Saturdays and holidays and transferring to a location that had not been delivering on Sundays), he resigned in 2019 and sued the USPS under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
The brief submitted to the Court on Groff’s behalf cites McGowan v. Maryland, a case also referenced in TAC’s most recent coverage of blue laws, in which Justice Warren’s majority opinion acknowledges that “Sunday is a day apart from all others.”
But Justice Sotomayor might disagree. One of the lines from the argument that caught my ear came from the Latinx justice’s musings on the Court’s authority to interpret the regulatory force of Title VII: “And one could argue that paying the premium wage by Amazon makes no difference. But at a certain point, we affect the corporation’s bottom line. And that’s not our choice to determine whether we want to do that, because the economy needs to run on incentives to make money.”
Sotomayor doesn’t make a habit of unintentionally channeling Milton Friedman, but a Pennsylvania man hoping to go to church and eat with his family on Sundays are extraordinary circumstances.
Of course, some work needs to be done on Sundays and holy days: emergency surgeries, firefighting, care of the young and elderly, and the like. But in Sotomayor’s mind, Amazon’s wish to compel labor supersedes a Lancaster County man’s religious obligation. Madison wants her transparent magenta tumblers now, and more importantly, Amazon wants to give them to her.
And these two interests of satisfied consumption and profit maximization played out in the government’s argument. Through the two hours of oral arguments, the single prevailing concern on the part of the government was that Amazon could continue delivering packages on Sundays: Everything else was secondary. Distilled to its basic parts, the government’s argument defined our regime’s fundamental orientation toward a lived practice of faith: In America, religious observance must be safe, legal, and rare.
While no man can serve two masters, that won’t stop us from trying. Perhaps the government hasn’t internalized that Groff’s attendance at work for an unnecessary reason is truly a matter of life and death. It wouldn’t be a violation of conscience regarding a civil case, but a case of divine law. We can judge whose bottom line should be favored on this ground alone, so it will be good to see which master our judges serve.
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