A long-simmering debate centering on the federal government’s intersection with Christian religious beliefs has once again reared its head. No, not abortion – mail delivery.
On Wednesday, May 25, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Pennsylvania decided that observing the Sunday Sabbath could not exempt a federal worker from delivering packages for Amazon, according to Reuters.
The carrier, Gerald Groff, had appealed on the grounds of religious discrimination. Discrimination against Christians in a Christian-centric nation might seem to be a logical impossibility considering their position of privilege in the American religious landscape. But this privilege never prevented some Sunday-observing Christians in the early republic from decrying discrimination.
Last week’s case revolved around a rural mail carrier in Pennsylvania seeking to observe Sunday Sabbath. Amazingly, the same sentence would accurately describe an example from 1809, in which Postmaster Hugh Wylie of Washington County, Pennsylvania, faced a choice between his employment and his membership in the Presbyterian church. While Wylie chose his job and considerable salary over church participation, the incident quickly became a rallying cry, a symbol of American government interference in the Christian religion.
The First Amendment declares that Congress cannot “establish” a religion “or prohibit the free exercise thereof,” meaning that Congress, tasked with postal policy, can neither declare a national religion nor prevent people from practicing theirs. Many Sunday Sabbath observers appealed to the second clause, the “free exercise” clause, to oppose Sunday mail.
They were quite loud about this in the early republic, and a hundred years later (102 to be exact) they won. Sunday mail ended in August 1912, because of an alliance between Christian lobbyists and labor activists, with a dose of Christian nationalism.
Last week’s case was only possible because the United States Postal Service (USPS) resumed some Sunday mail delivery serving Amazon in 2013. Amazon made a deal with USPS for postal workers to deliver Amazon packages on Sundays. The policy began in the metropolitan hubs of New York and Los Angeles, and then it spread nationally. Now that change is moving through the Federal court system.