In Washington State, the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD) prohibits employers from discriminating against someone based on age, sex, marital status, sexual orientation, race, creed, color, national origin, veteran status, or disability—but the statute exempts religious nonprofit employers from its requirements not to discriminate.
On February 6, 2014, the Washington Supreme Court decided a case that challenged this exemption as unconstitutional, holding that a hospital employee whose job was not related to religion could proceed with his claims of race and disability discrimination. The case, Ockletree v. Franciscan Health System, involved claims by a hospital security guard who had been terminated after he suffered a stroke. Ockletree argued that the religious employer exemption violated both the WA Constitution’s religious freedom clause and the privileges and immunities clause.
Legal Voice, along with the Washington Employment Lawyers Association (WELA), submitted an amicus brief arguing that the religious employer exemption implicated the fundamental right to be free from discrimination and violated the state constitution’s privileges and immunities clause (art. I, section 12).
The Court issued three separate opinions, none of which garnered a majority of the votes. However, a majority did agree to this narrow but important proposition: “When the exemption is applied to a person whose job qualifications and responsibilities are unrelated to religion, there is no reasonable ground for distinguishing between a religious organization and a purely secular organization.” Thus, the plaintiff in this case, who was a security guard for a nonprofit religious hospital, will be able to pursue his claims.
We are pleased that the majority ruling was based on arguments made in the Legal Voice/WELA brief that protections from discrimination are fundamental rights, and that the legislature cannot grant immunity to one class of corporations (religious nonprofits) unless there are reasonable grounds for not extending it to others (secular nonprofits) as well. The exemption affects a broad range of religious nonprofits—including universities, elementary schools, community service organizations, YMCA, YWCA, and the Salvation Army, as well as churches, synagogues, and mosques.
While there remains some uncertainty as to which positions will be deemed related to an employer’s religious mission, the Court opened a path previously believed to be closed for many employees subjected to discrimination based on a protected status such as race, gender, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity.