Supreme Court gives Catholic Health Systems License to Discriminate

In the Ockletree case decision, handed down today, Washington’s Supreme Court gave the Catholic Church a resounding victory by giving them license to avoid compliance with WA State antidiscrimination laws.  The “lead Opinion” from the Court also made clear that exempting the Catholic Church from laws that apply to other nonprofit businesses is not a “privilege,” and it asserted that an employee’s right to be free from discrimination is not a “fundamental” right.

The sharply divided Supreme Court opinion is a resounding victory for the right of a Church to build a health care empire or any other business empire (in oral arguments, the example of an oil-change business was cited) in support of its “ministry.”

This decision could be predicted from the questions and comments made during oral orguments, in which the Franciscan attorney made clear that religion is “infused” in everything Franciscan does, and that the Government shouldn’t interfere in the decisions of a religious organization.

Smart lawyers are analyzing the case.  Four justices signed on to the “lead” opinion which outlined the case for allowing religious entities to not have to comply with Washington’s antidiscrimination laws; four justices signed on to the dissenting opinion which said that religious entities should have to comply with antidiscrimination laws.  The deciding vote was cast by Supreme Court Justice Charles Wiggins who said that the law that exempts religious entities from Washington’s antidiscrimination laws is Constitutional but that any individual claim should be examined based on the job responsibilities of the employee in question and whether the job serves a religious purpose.  In the case of Ockletree specifically, Wiggins used language to assert that the exemption doesn’t apply to a person whose job qualifications and responsibilities are unrelated to religion, which he assumes would be the case for a security guard.

Note that courts have shown a great deal of deference in allowing religious organizations to determine who serves a religious function, and the Catholic Church maintains that religion is “infused” in everything it does with respect to carrying out its health care ministry.  So now we move on to the question of which job functions within a Catholic health care ministry serve the religious purpose of the ministry.  I expect Catholic health care systems to begin rewriting their job descriptions and recruiting materials to say that a given job is directly tied to the purpose of fulfilling a religious mission and that compliance with the ERDs is important across a broad swath of employee roles.

One other consequence of this case is that it should make it much easier to bring a suit on San Juan Island with respect to the hospital there, because the Court did make clear that “appropriating” money to a religious institution to support a religious mission (which now is clearly what Catholic health care ministries are engaged in) is unConstitutional under the Establishment clause.

More to come on this important decision, but for now, I encourage media to review the case carefully and consider its implications in a state where almost half (the ACLU says 45%) of our health care system is now subject to the control of Catholic bishops who have already demonstrated they will fire gay employees in same-sex marriages.

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13 thoughts on “Supreme Court gives Catholic Health Systems License to Discriminate

  1. Sherman Hu

    Thanks for Editor’s great work. That’s not a surprise, Catholic Healthcare organizations largely fly below the radar and have made their intent unknown to the general public.

    Every individual reads the news said that Catholic healthcare organizations are a Clear and Present danger to the American way of life.

    As a member of ACLU, I totally support your cause and hope that CatholicWatch to integrate with mainstream media, and to start educate the general public.

    Reply
  2. gary felder

    as a non religious person and a believer that this State ‘s constitution prevents this type in interference in these personal decisions. When was the rewrite started , I am not pleased that those that should have right to the protections and access on health matters are prevented from exercising those rights. Since when does the Catholic have a corner on the so called God,s truth given their less respectable record historically?

    Reply
  3. Judith Hance

    My broken heart is also full of anger. How can this have occurred?

    How can I learn how the justices voted?
    I will be making a little list.

    Reply
    1. Sherman Hu

      I am with you Judith.

      The reason why this is happening is that the activities of Catholic Healthcare organizations fly below radar that’s unknown to the general publics. Most people even not aware of the damage of Bush era Faith-based initiatives that using our taxpayers’ dollars (public funding) to fund Catholic healthcare organizations. The intent of this initiative is to help Catholic healthcare grow strong financially, and focusing on theology not the science.

      Continuing to expose the true intent of Catholic healthcare organizations is critical.

      Reply
  4. Mary WillAllen

    The names will be published in the newspaper. I still have the list of those Washington Supreme Court justices who voted against gay marriage, and I pull it out and share it
    whenever a judge comes up for reelection.

    Reply
    1. Sherman Hu

      Mary, that’s really good, would you let us know/or publish the list of the names?

      When I shared Catholic healthcare organizations’ activities with the public, people were shocked and angered. Information is critically important.

      As a member of ACLU, I believe that the general public is deserved to have the knowledge that would help them make the right decisions in the elections.

      Reply
  5. Lorie

    The rest of the web press seems to be seeing this decision as a victory for Mr. Ockletree, in that there was a finding that religious institutions are not exempted from anti-discrimination laws when it comes to workers who have jobs completely unrelated to any so-called ‘religious mission’. One could assume, then, that the Ockletree decision has opened a crack in the religious non-profit shield the Church thought is was operating behind.
    By continuing the case in federal courts using federal anti-discrimination law there is a possibility that a district court could come up with a finding that will affect not only Washington’s religious hospitals but force hospitals in other states who are managed by the Franciscans to change their employment policies. Yes/no?
    Of course it would have been preferable to have had the Court take the position that non-profits are not exempt from state anti-discrimination laws, period, but at least this represents one step forward.

    Reply
    1. Sherman Hu

      America is a land of law. There is no room debating whether or Catholic healthcare organizations should be exempted from Anti-Discrimination Law.

      Yes they’re subjected to this law (although they will continue to discriminate, it’s their religious deed).

      Catholic Healthcare organizations should also be subject to Affordable Care Act and providing abortion procedures to women.

      Reply
    2. catholicwatcher Post author

      I think the CourtHouse News Service interpretation/analysis is most accurate. It was a narrow victory for Ockletree and similar employees whose jobs clearly have no religious function or purpose, but in the broader scheme of things, the vast majority of employees who work for religious nonprofits will find their rights severely curtailed as result of this lawsuit. As one example, there is now nothing to stop a Catholic hospital from firing a nurse or physician who is in a same-sex marriage – because Catholic health care ministries make clear that religion is an integral part of health care delivery.

      Reply
    1. Sherman Hu

      Whether or not Catholic isn’t a point! That showed that Conservatives/Christian right banded together continuing their efforts to move our society backward.

      As America is dedicated the liberty, equal rights, justice for all, it’s shame that the Court allowed to have the racist practice in the organizations.

      Reply
    2. catholicwatcher Post author

      Six of the nine justices on the Supreme Court are Catholic. Three are Jewish.

      As cases focused on religion move forward, it’s disconcerting that we don’t have more diversity of religious experience among the justices. According to the most recent Pew Survey, Catholics make up 23.9% of the population whereas “Unaffiliated” makes up 16.1 percent, with less than 2% of the public identifying as Jewish.

      Two religious traditions are greatly overrepresented on today’s court.

      Reply
      1. Sherman Hu

        Thanks for the information and I will pass onto general public. Mid-term election is coming up and we need to let votes have the right information to make the decision.

        I am working with someone in the process of forming a nonprofit organization – “WashingtonProgressiveMovement”, I will keep everyone informed.

        Reply

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