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SOURCE Gordon Thomas Honeywell, LLP
TACOMA, Wash., Feb. 7, 2014 /PRNewswire/ -- In a sharply divided 5-4 decision, the Washington Supreme Court held yesterday that religious non-profit employers cannot discriminate against their employees whose jobs are unrelated to the religious mission of the employer. While the Court held that a state law exemption for religious employers is not unconstitutional in all circumstances, it determined that a hospital security guard who was terminated after suffering a stroke can continue his disability discrimination case against Franciscan Health System. (Ockletree v. Franciscan Health System, No. 88218-5)
Larry Ockletree was employed as a security guard in Tacoma at St. Joseph Hospital, which is owned and operated by Franciscan Health System, a business affiliated with Catholic Health Initiatives. Ockletree duties involved staffing a visitor's desk in the emergency department where he checked visitor identification. During his employment, Ockletree suffered a stroke that impaired his nondominant arm. Franciscan Health System terminated his employment as a result of the disability.
Ockletree sued Franciscan Health System after termination and brought federal claims as well as claims under Washington's Law Against Discrimination (WLAD), which prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of disability but exempts all religious non-profit employers from such claims. Franciscan Health System asked the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington to dismiss Ockletree's case based on the state law's exemption for religious non-profit employers. After considering the request, the federal court certified the question to the Washington Supreme Court. On appeal, Ockletree, represented by James Beck and Stephanie Bloomfield of Gordon Thomas Honeywell, LLP, and Dwayne Christopher of Dwayne L. Christopher, PLLC, argued the exemption provides a special benefit to religious employers, which is unconstitutional because it is singles out only religious nonprofits and gives special treatment to a powerful business group. Religious non-profit employers account for some of the largest employers in the region in both number of employees and revenue and dominate the healthcare field. Franciscan Health System argued that this exemption is appropriate and necessary to protect religious freedom.
On February 6, 2014, the nine-member Washington Supreme Court issued its decision in the case. The four-justice lead opinion determined that the exemption was appropriate. A four-justice dissenting opinion determined that the exemption was unconstitutional as applied to Ockletree whose job as a security guard was unrelated to any religious mission of the hospital. The final and deciding concurring opinion issued by Justice Wiggins held that while the religious exemption is not unconstitutional on its face, meaning that there will be some circumstances where the exemption is appropriate, when applied to situations like Ockletree's where there is no connection between the employee's job and the religious mission, the exemption is unconstitutional.
After learning of the decision, Ockletree's initial reaction was tears of joy. "I don't consider myself a hero or a champion. I just believe in standing up for what's right." He explained, "I am glad the court ruled in our favor and I look forward to the opportunity to tell my story to a jury. This is a victory for the people who came before me who were discriminated against but were not able to stand up and fight."
Ockletree's attorney James Beck stated, "This is an important decision that will protect workers who are doing their jobs and suffer discrimination from a religious employer. There is no reason for a double standard that protects employees working at secular nonprofit hospitals but allows a religious hospital to discriminate even when the employee's work is unrelated to any religious mission or ceremony. The divided opinions from the Supreme Court outline the tension between protection for religious freedom and providing unnecessary special privileges to religious employers. Employees who are not religious workers are entitled to civil rights protections."
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