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A Matter of Conscience

A Matter of Conscience

From its founding, the United States has been a beacon of religious freedom. The first words of the First Amendment—“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”—were radical and different for their time. Having come almost exclusively from a European heritage, where religious matters were under the absolute jurisdiction of the state—or more accurately, the crown—America’s founders were determined to avoid the violence, hatred, and persecution that inevitably arose when religious practices, or even doctrines, were either demanded or proscribed by law.

But however lofty the principles, for hundreds of years, America has been struggling with exactly how to implement them. It has been, almost from the start, a balance beam act between church and state.

In Pennsylvania, the right of religious practice in conflict with the claims of employers is the conundrum recently at issue. Earlier this year, lawyers had filed an appeal on behalf of a U.S. Postal Service worker who had run afoul of his bosses over his determination to not work on Sunday.

Sunday Deliveries

In 2012, Gerald Groff began working for the Postal Service at the Quarryville Post Office in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, eventually becoming a Rural Carrier Associate, a part-time position with no guarantee of “specific hours or set schedules.” All was well at first since mail is generally not delivered on Sundays. However, in 2013, the Postal Service contracted to deliver packages for Amazon, which included Sunday delivery.

This was problematic for Groff, an evangelical who believes that the fourth commandment means that he should not work on Sundays. As the appeal brief written in his behalf said: “As an Evangelical Christian within the Protestant tradition, … Groff observes Sunday as the Sabbath. … Groff sincerely believes he is obligated to refrain from work on the Sunday Sabbath, including his USPS work responsibilities.”

At first, Groff was able to navigate around the issue by agreeing to work on other shifts during the week as needed. Later, however, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the USPS and the National Rural Letter Carriers Association, a union, changed the rules about who worked when, and Groff was informed “that he would need to work on Sundays or find another job.”

Groff then managed to get transferred to another post office that had not contracted with Amazon, yet soon found himself in the same pickle after that office began Sunday deliveries for the e-commerce giant after some months. All attempts to accommodate him nonetheless still violated his religious conscience. Consequently, Groff resigned, unsuccessfully suing the Postal Service in a lower court. He has since filed an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, with the case still pending.

Sincere but Wrong

According to the Bible, God’s fourth commandment states, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall do no work” (Exodus 20:8–10).

Though Groff cited this commandment as the reason for his refusal to work on Sunday, as we have just seen, the fourth commandment specifically cites “the seventh day” of the week, Saturday—not the first day, Sunday—as the Sabbath.

For the most part, however, the theological validity of religious claims is irrelevant for courts in the United States. Religious liberty cases focus largely on whether the person holds a “sincerely held religious [belief],” not whether that religious belief is true.

Of course, federal organizations aren’t in the business of Bible study either. In Groff’s case, for instance, the post office offered him, as one of its possible accommodations, the option to switch his day of worship to any other day in the week whenever he was scheduled to work on Sunday. Essentially, Groff could take his pick on which day he wanted to worship God.

That might have seemed like an acceptable solution to the Postal Service, but what does God think of that? Does God care which day we worship Him?

The Bible says that He does. Just look at the verses above. God commanded us to remember, to rest on, and to keep holy the seventh day as God’s Sabbath. He made sure we know the reason too: “For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it” (v. 11).

We worship God on the seventh day because God is our Creator. Our seventh-day Sabbath is tied to our acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty and omnipotence and is, in itself, an act of obedience and reverence. Moreover, the sanctification of the seventh day is intrinsically tied to the fabric making up the origin of life. Even in our limited understanding, we can see why it is the seventh day—and not the first day or any other day—that matters. The seventh day commemorated an important event. Can a person change his birthday or a wedding anniversary or the day he graduated? No, and neither can a person or a federal agency or a court of law change the Sabbath.

In short, however principled his stance and despite his right to be accommodated with the strictures of American law, Groff is still not keeping the law that, at the end of the day, matters most—God’s law.

To learn more about how the seventh-day Sabbath has actually been an integral part of our history, check out this simple article, “Which Day of the Week Is the Sabbath?” 

This article contributed by Clifford Goldstein
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