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.