Class Action Over Airport Workers' Meals Revived

     (CN) - An airport catering service may have violated its employees' rights by forcing them to eat food barred by their religious beliefs or "work hungry," the Washington Supreme Court ruled.
     James Kumar and three of his co-workers filed a class action against Gate Gourmet, which provides meals for trains and planes at SeaTac Airport in Seattle.
     They challenged Gate Gourmet's meal policy under Washington's Law Against Discrimination (WLAD), as the policy forbids them from bringing their own meals or leaving the premises to buy food during their lunch breaks, due to security concerns.
     Instead, Gate Gourmet provides food for its employees. The employee meals include a vegetarian option, but the workers claimed that they include animal byproducts.
     In their lawsuit, the employees complained that their religion barred them from eating meatballs made with beef and pork, prompting Gate Gourmet to switch to turkey meatballs. But they said Gate Gourmet switched back to beef-pork meatballs without telling them, and then refused to alter the menu.
     The trial court dismissed their complaint, stating that the WLAD does not require employers to accommodate their workers' religious practices.
     However, the Washington Supreme Court reversed in a ruling written by Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud.
     "Under state rules of statutory interpretation and persuasive federal antidiscrimination law, the WLAD implies a requirement to reasonably accommodate religious practices," she wrote.
     "Washington courts construe the WLAD's protections broadly where other forms of discrimination are concerned; we decline to carve out an exception for religious discrimination," Gordon McCloud added. "Accordingly, we hold that the WLAD creates a cause of action for failure to reasonably accommodate an employee's religious practices."
     She said the employees "have met their burden to establish a prima facie religious discrimination claim" on the basis that they were allegedly "forced to eat prohibited food or work hungry."
     Chief Justice Barbara Madsen dissented from her colleagues, saying the WLAD does not include religious accommodations.
     "The Legislature chose to entirely exempt nonprofit religious institutions from prosecution under the WLAD," she wrote. "The existence of this exemption is strong evidence that the Legislature has given due consideration to the complexities and implications of legislating in the religious discrimination area and has chosen not to do so, at least for the time being."