Thursday, September 28, 2023
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Bias Claim Won’t Stick to Religious Employer

(CN) - Freedom from employment discrimination is not a civil right, the divided Washington Supreme Court ruled, finding that state anti-discrimination law properly exempts religious employers.

Larry Ockletree worked as a security guard for Franciscan Health System (FHS) at St. Joseph Hospital where he checked visitors' IDs and issued name tags.

While employed at the hospital, he suffered a stroke and lost the use of his nondominant arm. FHS determined that Ockletree could not perform his job with his impairment, and fired him after refusing his requested accommodation.

Ockletree sued in state court under Washington's Law Against Discrimination (WLAD), alleging that he was fired because he is black and disabled.

"Ockletree's argument seems to be that a cause of action for discrimination by a private actor in a private employment setting is a fundamental right of citizenship," according to the majority opinion penned by Justice Charles Johnson. "However, Ockletree's assertion has no support in our jurisprudence or in any other state or federal court."

Courts across the nation have declined to find a constitutional claim for employment discrimination, the five-justice majority found.

"Rather, protection from discrimination in private employment is a creature of statutory enactment," Johnson wrote.

Federal equal protection laws are also not implicated here, according to the ruling. There is no basis to assert that secular employees subject to the antidiscrimination law bear greater expenses because religious nonprofits are exempt, the 26-page opinion states.

In an amicus brief, United Methodist Church noted that religious organizations must sometimes be treated differently than secular organizations because of the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion.

Citing this argument, Johnson said the religious employer exemption "accommodates the broad protections to religious freedoms afforded by Washington's article I, section 11. The legislature gives effect to these protections by choosing to avoid potential entanglements between the state and religion that could occur in enforcing WLAD against religious nonprofits."

The four dissenting justices meanwhile found that the state law disclaims "any limits on the ability of religious-affiliated corporations to engage in discrimination unrelated to their religious beliefs or practices. The broad exemption of religious nonprofit corporations from Washington's Law Against Discrimination cannot constitutionally be applied to allow race or disability discrimination against a hospital security guard."

"The WLAD recognizes that freedom from discrimination is a civil right, not merely a statutory promise," Justice Debra Stephens wrote for the dissent (italics in original).

Stevens added: "Requiring religious employers to comply with general laws forbidding discrimination on the basis of race and disability does not require them to draw impossible lines in the gray area between religious and secular activities. It simply requires them not to discriminate. If there is a brighter bright-line rule, I cannot imagine it."

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