Update: Here’s a good analysis of the decision reached by Washington’s Supreme Court in the Ockletree case. It’s a dangerous ruling for health care employees as this overview makes clear.
Ockletree vs. Franciscan is a case that will likely determine whether or not Catholic health systems (now self-described as “Catholic Health Care Ministries”) are subject to Washington State’s antidiscrimination laws. These are the laws that protect people against discrimination on the basis of race, creed, color, national origin, sex, marital status, sexual orientation, or disability. Amicus (friend of the court) briefs are due in April, with oral arguments likely to happen in May. The United States District Court for the Western District of Washington at Tacoma certified the following two questions for determination by the Washington Supreme Court:
1) The Washington Law Against Discrimination excludes religious non-profit organizations from its definition of “employer” (Wash. Rev. Code 49.60.040(11)). Such entities are therefore facially exempt from the WLAD’s prohibition of discrimination in the workplace. Does this exemption violate Washington Constitution Article 1, 11, or 12?
2) If not, is Washington Rev. Code 49.60.040(11)’s exemption unconstitutional as applied to an employee claiming that the religious nonprofit organization discrimination against him for reasons wholly unrelated to any religious purpose, practice, or activity?
Below are the key briefs and a summary of the case:
First, here’s the brief from the plaintiff.
Next, here’s the brief from the defendant, Franciscan Health System.
And below is the case summary:
The plaintiff was a security guard, employed by Franciscan Health. His job mostly involved signing people into the emergency room and giving them badges. After recovering from a stroke that impaired mobility in a way that the employee believed could and should be accommodated, he was terminated. He then brought race and disability employment discrimination claims against the hospital in federal court.
There is concurrent jurisdiction between state and federal agencies to enforce federal anti-discrimination law. State agencies also enforce state anti-discrimination law, which is more protective than federal law. State law (the Washington Law Against Discrimination) excludes from the definition of “employer” nonprofit, religious organizations. Rather than address the specifics of his request for reasonable accommodation, Franciscan claimed it was exempt and was not an “employer” under the statute. Consequently, it argued that the plaintiff’s complaint filed with a local government agency was ineffective because such an agency would not have been able to hear a complaint against the hospital under state law. The plaintiff argued that this violated the state constitution. Federal courts don’t like to address state constitutional questions that a state court has not yet addressed, so it put the plaintiff’s case on hold and has asked the Washington Supreme Court to determine whether the exemption for nonprofit religious organizations violates Article I, Section 11 (religious freedom) or Article I, Section 12 (privileges and immunities) of the Washington State Constitution.
What’s especially interesting about this case is that Franciscan deliberately chose to make a legal argument in a case where the claimant is likely be among the most sympathetic in terms of antidiscrimination claims: a disabled person of color. If WA courts grant Catholic hospitals the right to discriminate against a disabled person of color, it’s clear they can discriminate against pretty much anybody with impunity.
If Franciscan “wins” this case, expect Catholic Health Ministries to aggressively pursue their newfound “right” to discriminate against people who do not share Catholic values or who have lifestyles (gay; single, pregnant women; contraceptive-using women) that the Church says conflicts with Catholic doctrine.