Should the USPS honor the Sabbath or Amazon?

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Rebecca Brenner Graham received her doctorate in history from American University in 2021. Her dissertation, “When the Mail Came on Sunday, 1810-1912,” traces 19th-century American religion-state relations through the lens of the Sunday mail delivery.

A long-running debate centered on the federal government’s intersection with Christian religious beliefs has resurfaced. No, not abortion – mail delivery.

On Wednesday, May 25, the 3rd The United States Circuit Court of Appeals in Pennsylvania has ruled that observance of the Sunday Sabbath cannot exempt a federal worker from delivering packages for Amazon, according to Reuters.

The carrier, Gerald Groff, had appealed for religious discrimination. Discriminating against Christians in a Christian-centric nation may seem like a logical impossibility given their privileged position in the American religious landscape. But that privilege never stopped some Sunday-observant Christians in the early republic from speaking out against discrimination.

Last week’s case involved a rural Pennsylvania mail carrier seeking to observe the Sunday Sabbath. Surprisingly, the same sentence would accurately describe an example from 1809, in which postmaster Hugh Wylie of Washington County, Pennsylvania had to choose between his job and membership in the Presbyterian church. While Wylie preferred his job and his sizable salary to church attendance, the incident quickly became a rallying cry, a symbol of the US government’s interference in the Christian religion.

The First Amendment states that Congress cannot “establish ‘a religion’ or prohibit the free exercise thereof”, which means that Congress, charged with postal policy, can neither declare a religion a national nor prevent people from practicing theirs. Many Sunday Sabbath keepers have appealed to the second clause, the “free exercise” clause, to oppose the Sunday mail.

They were pretty vocal about it at the start of the republic, and a hundred years later (102 to be exact) they won. The Sunday mail ended in August 1912, due to an alliance between Christian lobbyists and union activists, with a dose of Christian nationalism.

Last week’s case was only possible because the United States Postal Service (USPS) took over some of the Sunday mail delivery serving Amazon in 2013. Amazon entered into an agreement with the USPS to that postal workers deliver Amazon packages on Sundays. The policy began in the metropolitan hubs of New York and Los Angeles, then spread nationwide. Now that change is going through the federal court system.

The 3rd The Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that exempting mail carriers from Sunday shifts would be a burden on other workers. Equity among postal workers was also a concern when Congress ended Sunday mail delivery in 1912. The concern in 1912 was that postal policy could not exempt carriers from Sunday work without increasing the committed. If carriers weren’t there to deliver, clerks took on more work at local post offices to compensate. Accordingly, an obscure political rationale for ending the Sunday Mail was fairness between clerks and carriers. Of course, this was not obscure, but a lived reality for clerks and carriers.

Today, many postal clerks and carriers face high demands, understaffing and untenable working conditions. On the surface, Amazon has helped mitigate the long-term effects of Congressional underfunding of the USPS from 2006 through 2022, as well as competition with new communications technologies. Parcel delivery has become more important than ever to the longevity of USPS. However, while Amazon reaps the benefits, postal workers and carriers literally bear the brunt.

The First Republic’s Sunday Mail controversy reflected widely shared concerns about dissolution, the complex process of separating church from state in a new nation. Likewise, today’s controversy demonstrates concern about Amazon’s role in society. Labor issues at Amazon are no secret, and the inability of a federal postal worker in Pennsylvania – not directly employed by the private company but required by the USPS to work on its behalf on Sunday – is a symptom of this.

The dissenting judge in last week’s case said the extent of the charge against the USPS was unclear. This judge, Circuit Judge Thomas Hardiman, wanted to authorize an individual exemption for a postal worker, Gerald Groff, from observing the holy rest on Sundays on the grounds that it would not really interfere with business.

When Judge Hardiman wondered if a work exemption for a Sunday watcher was an inconvenience, perhaps he was really asking why Amazon was so big that federal workers had to spend their weekends obliging it. This religious discrimination case appears to be about labor exploitation.

An alliance between Christian nationalists like Wilbur F. Crafts and labor movements transformed postal and other policies in the early 20th century. A century later, Amazon broke that covenant, setting the precedent to resume Sunday mail delivery to maximize efficiency and profits. Justice Hardiman’s dissent asks what a downside really means and why does it matter?

The 3rd The Circuit Court of Appeals decision proves that powerful corporations like Amazon have outstripped even Christian nationalism in the race to set postal policy. Instead of speaking out against religious discrimination, activists and people who just want to enjoy their weekends should campaign for labor rights. This effort will require separating Christian morality from labor movements, which have historically been intertwined.

Everyone deserves rest, whether the rest is sacred or not. If companies like Amazon can accept profits slightly below the maximum profits, then Americans will be able to spend time away from work, and Gerald Groff will be free to go to church.

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