A familiar battle in the struggle between church and state in the United States is making headlines again — one that dates to the founding of the nation. While the cast of characters has evolved over two centuries, the themes remain the same.
The issue at hand? Sunday mail delivery.
On April 18, the Supreme Court heard the case of former U.S. Postal Service employee Gerald Groff, an evangelical Christian who was pushed out of his job for refusing to work on Sundays because it conflicted with his Sabbath. Groff contends that the Postal Service did not reasonably accommodate his religious practices as mandated by the 1964 Civil Rights Act and seeks to reverse almost 50 years of legal precedent — further dismantling the perceived “wall” between church and state.
However, the impact would stretch beyond your mailbox. An exception for Sunday religious observers would create an inequity for those who are not religious, who would remain victim to the overwork culture, while religious Christians avoid it. It would also reverse the decision Congress took on the issue in the early republic.
Mail delivery on Sundays is not a new phenomenon — it arrived on Sundays from 1810 to 1912 — nor is the conflict. In 1809, postmaster Hugh Wylie had to leave his Presbyterian Church because mandatory Sunday services conflicted with his postal work responsibilities. Political activists, hungry for an opportunity to iron out the relationship between politics and religion in the new nation, seized on Wylie’s plight as a catalyst to launch a fight to outlaw Sunday mail.
They faced off against Jeffersonian Republicans who supported the separation between church and state, while also having another motive for supporting Sunday mail. They were largely proslavery and pro-expansion into Indigenous territory to spread slavery, and knew they were on the brink of war to secure expanding American borders. Such a war (what eventually would be the War of 1812) would necessitate a functional national communications network that delivered messages as quickly as possible.
The Jeffersonian Republicans won out, and in 1810 Congress officially enacted Sunday mail delivery as U.S. policy. This decision ignited waves of petitions that helped shape early American political culture. The debates over Sunday mail showcased the contradictions between the First Amendment’s two religion clauses, which both prevent the establishment of a religion and permit the free exercise of religion. Anti-Sunday mail petitioners and politicians wanted to freely exercise their right to observe the Sabbath on Sunday without work conflicts. Defenders of Sunday mail, by contrast, wanted to protect Americans from the establishment of Christianity as a national religion.
The debate even became tangled up with the fight over slavery. Sunday was an important day for enslaved resistance, including escape, because of slightly more unstructured time. Sunday religious ceremonies provided both spiritual fuel and opportunities for Black communities to gather and plan. Many white abolitionists, like the Rev. Lyman Beecher, also opposed Sunday mail delivery, because of the shared religious roots of both causes as they saw them. Meanwhile most enslavers saw the post office as integral to their efforts to communicate about enslaved people trying to escape, so they wanted Sunday mail to continue.
The debate was not settled until 1830 as far as Congress was concerned. That year, Rep. Richard Mentor Johnson delivered a report stipulating that Sunday mail delivery would continue. The report argued that Sunday mail delivery was imperative for religious freedom because ending Sunday mail would privilege Sunday observers and overburden everyone else.
Johnson’s stance on religious freedom met widespread support, even carrying him to the vice presidency in 1837, and religious minorities referenced the Johnson Report as a policy milestone as they continued to navigate issues of religious freedom in an overwhelmingly Christian country.
Ironically, given enslavers’ support for Sunday mail delivery, it was the Confederacy which first ended Sunday mail in 1863. The Congress of the Confederacy wanted to assert a moral high ground over the Union. It proudly referenced the Johnson Report, while reversing its findings and wrapping the Confederate cause in Christian Nationalism.
The issue came back into national politics because of the rise of interest groups after the Civil War. Their capacity for collective action provided a mechanism to propose radical change in American society, with varying degrees of success. In 1888, such activism led to a bill in Congress that proposed ending all federal activity on Sundays. Religious minorities, especially Seventh-day Adventists, however, mobilized to defeat it.
But the politics of the issue changed as an alliance between Christian Nationalists, who wanted to make the United States Christian, and organized labor began to coalesce. Ending Sunday mail delivery appealed to both for very different reasons. For Christian Nationalists, it promised to signal Sunday as an American Sabbath, whereas labor activists liked the idea because they wanted better work conditions, fewer hours and higher pay. Sunday rest was sacred to the Christian lobbyists, and any rest was irresistibly appealing to most workers.
In 1911, at the prodding of this new alliance of odd bedfellows, Congress passed a law mandating compensatory time for postal employees who worked part of Sunday.
But this move didn’t end the fight. Instead, the very next year, without any formal debate, Congress used the appropriations process to end Sunday mail delivery. One cause was the ability to save $37 million annually. Even so, the decision signaled that the public discussions of religious freedom and the separation of church and state rang hollow in practice.
That was the end to Sunday mail for 101 years, until 2013, when the Postal Service signed an agreement with Amazon to deliver packages, including on Sundays. Groff, a former Postal Service employee in Pennsylvania, believed that observing the Christian Sabbath on Sunday should exempt him from Sunday labor. The service objected because of the unfair burden that giving Groff off on Sundays would impose on his colleagues and mail delivery. Now, the Supreme Court is weighing his case under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires employers to accommodate reasonable requests for religious exemptions when the cost to do so would be minimal.
After two hours of oral arguments, the prevailing wisdom appears to be that the justices — including those ideologically sympathetic to wide-scale expansion of “religious liberty” in American society — are looking for a middle ground between Groff and the Postal Service, as Justice Neil M. Gorsuch stated. During oral arguments, the justices appeared sensitive both to concern from Americans across the spectrum of denominations and religions that the court’s current interpretation of the law provides too little protection for them and worries about the implications of Groff’s claim for employers.
It’s possible that there’s a majority in favor of a narrow ruling in this case on the specific accommodations at hand. But even a narrow ruling could open the door for future erosion of precedent.
And the stakes are high: A broader ruling in favor of Groff could have massive implications for how employers, especially public employers, have to accommodate people’s religious practices. If employers must give Christian workers Sundays off, it means that their non-Christian colleagues will have to do more weekend work, creating a disparity and a benefit for religious Christians that nonreligious Americans and religious minorities don’t enjoy. A broad ruling could also exempt employees from certain types of work, which might also burden colleagues.
While the court will rule on the meaning of a provision in the Civil Rights Act, a ruling in favor of Groff would be a reversal of how the battle over Sunday mail in early America turned out — and would be yet another sign that today’s Supreme Court has tipped the balance of power between the First Amendment’s two religion clauses strongly toward the Free Exercise Clause.
Rebecca Brenner Graham holds a Ph.D. in history from American University, with a dissertation on Sunday mail delivery. She is the author of a forthcoming book about Frances Perkins, U.S. Secretary of Labor during the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. This article, which was written before the Supreme Court ruled in the Groff v. DeJoy case, is reprinted with permission from The Washington Post. © 2023 The Washington Post. All rights reserved. Used under license.