Washington Exemption For Faith-Based Employers Challenged

May 9, 2013

The State Supreme Court today heard arguments in a case that could decide whether faith-based employers in Washington have some exemption from the state’s anti-discrimination law.

Larry Ockletree was a security guard at St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma. His job was mainly to greet and issue ID tags to visitors coming to the ER. He suffered a stroke and lost the use of his left arm. According to court papers, Ockletree tried to return to work, but the hospital wouldn’t allow it and declined to make any accommodations for him.

Ockletree, an African-American, sued. His lawyers say Ockletree was discriminated against based on his disability and race. His firing violates the Washington State Law Against Discrimination.

The Franciscan Health System, St. Joseph’s parent group responded, saying the law exempts religious nonprofits.   

James Beck, an attorney for Ockletree, says that exemption is unconstitutional because it’s showing favoritism for a subset of corporations or citizens. “And when you’re making a distinction based on religion,” he says, “you’re chartering into territory where you’re endorsing religion over non-religion, which this court … has said, it’s not going to allow.”

The state Legislature enacted its sweeping anti-discrimination law in 1949. It has been updated a few times since. The latest was in 1993.

Mary Spillane, lawyer for the Franciscan Health System, says the law doesn’t give the hospital license to discriminate against its employees. It’s still bound by other regulations, including federal law.  

Spillane told the court that the state had an interest to protect the well-being of religious nonprofits that provide important public services. “Given the place that religious institutions have had in our society, and the good that they perform that was recognized even at the time of the Constitutional convention, we don’t want to put the additional burden on them and run the risk of that they cannot fulfill their mission because of the costliness to comply with this,” Spillane says.

The issue before the court is whether the exemption violates the state’s Constitution.

To date, there are 10 employer discrimination cases pending against religious hospitals in Washington. Religious groups, employment lawyers, and constitutional scholars are closely watching the case. The number of Washington hospitals with religious affiliations is on the rise.