By Russell Shaw
Both the extent and the limitations of the Supreme Court’s power are visible in a pending case raising the question of how far employers must go to accommodate employees’ religion. Underlying this dispute — yet obviously unreachable by the Supreme Court — is the larger reality of the sabbath’s de facto secularization in today’s America.
The case now before the court — Groff v DeJoy, it’s called — concerns a mail carrier who lost his job for refusing to deliver mail on Sunday because his Christian faith forbids him to work on the sabbath. The justices heard oral arguments last month and will announce their decision before the court’s current term ends in late June or early July.
Immediately at issue here is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act barring employment discrimination on the basis of religion (as well as race, color, sex or national origin). When amending the law in 1972, Congress said an employer should make provision for an employee’s religious practice unless that would involve “undue hardship” for its business. The question for the court now is what that means in practice.
Whatever the justices eventually decide, this question is all they can decide. The larger issue of sabbath observance will remain untouched. And since Sunday closing laws stand little chance of winning approval today, either by court order or societal consensus, we must settle for the kind of religiously pluralistic patchwork solution underlying Chapter VII accompanied by conflicts like the one that brought Gerald Groff and the U.S. Postal Service to the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, of course, it will remain up to individual religious believers to determine for themselves whether and how they choose to observe their religious tradition’s weekly holy day (Sunday for Christians, Saturday for Jews, Friday for Muslims). Moreover — and this certainly holds true Catholics — it’s fair to say that we all need to examine our consciences on this matter of sabbath observance.
Let’s be honest about it. Is Sunday the day we typically devote to buying groceries, browsing for bargains at the mall, and/or long hours devoted to watching back-to-back sporting events on TV? Do we sometimes skip Mass because spending an hour in church would get in the way of these activities or others that we find more pressing or just more entertaining?
“The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice,” says the Catechism of the Catholic Church (ccc 2181). But it also says quite a bit else: “The institution of the Lord’s Day helps everyone enjoy adequate rest and leisure to cultivate their familial, cultural, social, and religious lives” (ccc 2184). And again: “Traditional activities (sport, restaurants, etc,) and social necessities (public services, etc.) require some people to work on Sundays, but everyone should still take care to set aside sufficient time for leisure” (ccc 2187).
I wouldn’t presume to say who’s in the right in the case before the Supreme Court. On behalf of the United States Postal Service, I should point out that the present conflict grew out of the financially hard-pressed Postal Service’s contract with Amazon to deliver the giant retailer’s packages on Sunday. And there’s no denying USPS needs all the income it can get.
As for mail carrier Groff, an Evangelical Christian, there’s much to admire in the fact that he was prepared to fight the system because of his conviction that his faith forbids him to work on Sunday. To that extent, he’s a good example to us all — one that, no matter what the court says, we all can take to heart.
Russell Shaw, a veteran journalist and writer, is the author of more than 20 books, including three novels.