Case before state Supreme Court spurs questions about religion in workplace

By

Published:

 

SEATTLE — Are Washington employers obligated to accommodate their employees' religious practices — giving days off for holidays, for example, or allowing time to pray during work hours?

The Washington Supreme Court will hear arguments today in a case closely watched by legal groups not so much for its merits but for the precedent it could set in finally clarifying the state's discrimination law.

The lawsuit before them was brought by four employees of Gate Gourmet, an international company that prepares food for airline passengers, and which, for security reasons, prohibits its workers from bringing their own meals to work.

The four men — vegetarian, Orthodox Christian, Muslim and Hindu say the meals the company had been serving during the workers' shifts led them unknowingly to eat pork and other foods in conflict with their religious and moral beliefs.

Asegedew Gefe, one of the plaintiffs, is an Orthodox Christian who has been working at Gate's warehouse at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport since 2010.

"We're not asking for this or that," he said. "If it's broccoli, tell us it's broccoli. If it's pork, tell us pork."

But does the company have to?

While it is illegal under state law to fire or refuse to hire someone because of his creed, defined as a system of religious beliefs, the law is less clear — and some say silent, even — on whether employers must accommodate religious practices in the workplace, at a time when employees are increasingly asserting their religious identities at work.

Some say the protection is implicit in state law.

"Failure to recognize a religious discrimination claim under (state law) would leave a gaping hole in the coverage made available by the statute," the ACLU of Washington and the Washington Employment Lawyers Association wrote in a brief filed with the Supreme Court.

A year ago, King County Superior Court Judge Mary Yu granted Gate's request to dismiss the workers' lawsuit, saying state law does not require employers to accommodate religious practices.

Yu wrote that her order was based on a state Court of Appeals decision in an earlier case in which a devout Christian woman sued the Battle Ground School District for religious accommodation, saying her supervisor told her to relay false information to another employee against her religious beliefs.

The appeals court judges dismissed that case, concluding that the high court, the Legislature and Human Rights Commission, which enforces the state anti-discrimination law, had never formally recognized religious accommodation under state law.

Some believe the Supreme Court agreed to take the Gate case in part because of its importance.

Justices this session are also weighing a separate aspect of the anti-discrimination law in another case.

In May, they heard arguments on whether the exemption granted in the law to religious organizations — from churches to universities to hospitals — is in conflict with the state constitution.

High court rulings in both cases would guide lower courts in deciding such lawsuits in the future.

Specifically, a decision in the accommodation case could shift some lawsuits from federal to state court, set the standard for the accommodation employers must make and allow workers to sue smaller employers -- those with eight workers versus those with 25, as required in federal cases.

"This law has been around since 1949; it's hard to imagine the issue is only now being addressed," said attorney George M. Ahrend, who wrote an amicus, or friend-of-the-court, brief for the Washington State Association for Justice Foundation.

"Citizens shouldn't have to rely on federal law for protection."

Attorneys for the company, which employs about 130 workers at Sea-Tac, wrote in an email that Gate "takes its legal obligations very seriously, including those that are designed to protect the rights of its employees."

Aaron Rocke, attorney for the Gate workers, said religious accommodation is implicit in state law.

"The primary legal issue in this appeal is an important matter of civil rights that helps define Washington state as either with the mainstream in protecting civil rights and respecting religion, or a fringe haven for intolerance," Rocke said.