Washington Supreme Court Backs Discrimination Claim Against Catholic Hospital

Feb 7, 2014

Religious institutions in Washington have previously been exempt from discrimination rules but that could be changing. The Washington Supreme Court said in decisions Thursday that some employees whose duties are non-religious can bring discrimination claims against these nonprofits.

The decision stemmed from the case of Larry Ockletree, who was working as a security guard for St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma in 2010 when he suffered a stroke that affected his left arm. Ockletree said he could still work, but the hospital fired him. Ockletree, an African-American, sued for discrimination based on race and disability.

His lawsuit ended up before the Washington Supreme Court. His attorney James Beck said the court had to achieve a difficult balance. “The middle ground has got to be somewhere where religion is able to operate without unnecessary government interference, but at the same time religion isn’t given special treatment,” Beck said.

A majority of the justices said there are valid reasons to treat religious institutions differently when it comes to discrimination laws in order to protect religious freedom and avoid state interference.

But a majority also said Ockletree should be able to pursue his discrimination case. Justice Charles Wiggins said employees in non-religious roles should still have the right to sue their employers.

Another attorney for Ockletree, Stephanie Bloomberg, said courts may now have to decide which jobs are non-religious. “Where there are some jobs that aren’t clearly religious or secular, there’s going to be a gray area,” Bloomberg said.

She said it will be up to the courts to resolve those issues.

Sarah Dunne, with the ACLU of Washington, said the situation was tricky. For instance, she said it’s clear that janitors or security guards aren’t part of the religious mission of an organization, but the role of doctors could be contested.  

Employees of religious nonprofits have also been able to sue in federal court. Ockletree’s lawsuit will also be going forward in the federal system.

Sheryl Willert, an attorney for Franciscan Health System, which operates the Tacoma hospital, said with this decision, the state supreme court has created a “carve-out” not necessarily intended by legislators. She suggested that they could revisit the law.

Ockletree’s attorneys said he is currently studying “human relations” at Clover Park Technical College in Lakewood.