Supreme Court announces new cases involving religious liberty and free speech

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The Supreme Court last week announced it will hear 11 new cases this term including one regarding religious liberty, one about home equity theft, and a third relating to free speech.

Groff v. DeJoy

Gerald Groff was an evangelical Christian employed by the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) until he resigned to avoid working on Sundays. When Groff began the job at USPS in Pennsylvania in 2012, the service did not deliver on Sundays. That changed in 2013 when USPS signed a contract with Amazon to deliver packages seven days a week.

At first, Groff was exempted from Sunday work as long as he covered other shifts throughout the week. By 2018, however, management required Groff to work Sundays and struggled to find replacements when he did not show up. Facing termination, Groff resigned and sued USPS for failing to reasonably accommodate his religious practice.

The District Court ruled against Groff, finding that “an employer does not need to wholly eliminate a conflict in order to offer an employee a reasonable accommodation.” By attempting to find employees to swap shifts with Groff, the Court reasoned, USPS offered him a reasonable accommodation.

The Circuit Court affirmed the District Court’s ruling, relying on a case called Trans World Airlines v. Hardison (1977) to determine that exempting Groff from Sunday work would result in undue hardship for his co-workers.

The majority emphasized that, during peak season, an exemption would “place[] a great strain on the Holtwood Post Office personnel,” forcing other carriers to cover Groff’s shifts and “give up their family time [and] their ability to attend church services if they would have liked to.” The court further noted that accommodating Groff “created a tense atmosphere with the other RCAs” and, even during non-peak season, “result[ed] in other employees doing more than their share of burdensome work.”

Now at the U.S. Supreme Court, Groff asks the justices (1) to define when a religious accommodation is an “undue hardship” for a business or agency, and (2) to decide if the undue hardship can apply to employee’s coworkers rather than the business itself.

Tyler v. Hennepin County

93-year-old Geraldine Tyler owed $15,000 in property taxes, penalties, and interest on a one-bedroom condo in Minneapolis, Minnesota—so the County seized her condo, sold it for $40,000, and kept all of the proceeds.

This scheme, called home equity theft by Tyler’s lawyers, is legal in 13 states across the country, including Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Oregon, New Jersey, and New York. In Minnesota alone, at least 1,200 people lost their homes to the county government for an average of only 8 percent of the home’s value.

In Tyler’s case, Hennepin County kept $25,000 in surplus proceeds from the sale of her condo. She sued, with pro bono representation, but the case was dismissed at both the district and circuit court level.

The questions before the Supreme Court are whether taking and selling a home to satisfy a debt to the government, and keeping the surplus value as a windfall, (1) violates the Fifth Amendment’s takings clause and (2) the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on excessive fines.

Counterman v. Colorado

Billy Raymond Counterman was convicted and sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison for stalking a Denver, Colorado, musician. Counterman sent over a million Facebook messages to the woman, including statements that could be interpreted as threatening:

“Was that you in the white Jeep?”

“Five years on Facebook. Only a couple physical sightings.”

“Seems like I’m being talked about more than I’m being talked to. This isn’t healthy.”

“I’ve had tapped phone lines before. What do you fear?”

“I’m currently unsupervised. I know, it freaks me out too, but the possibilities are endless.”

“Fuck off permanently.”

“Your arrogance offends anyone in my position.”

“You’re not being good for human relations. Die. Don’t need you.”

Counterman was arrested, charged, and convicted of stalking under Colorado Criminal Code § 18-3-602 in 2016. Using the law’s definition, stalking occurs when a person repeatedly contacts, surveils, or communicates with an individual in such a way that a reasonable person would feel serious emotional distress.

He appealed his conviction, arguing that the stalking law violated his right to free speech. At issue is whether the messages constitute a “true threat” not shielded by the First Amendment. The lower courts are split on the standard for evaluating a true threat. The First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, and Eleventh Circuits hold that a true threat is one that an objectively reasonable person would view as a serious expression of intent to harm. The Ninth and Tenth Circuits, on the other hand, require proof that the speaker intended the statement as a threat.

Counterman asks the U.S. Supreme Court to resolve the split and determine if a “true threat” is evaluated by the objective or subjective standard.