The recent firing of a popular vice principal from a Catholic high school in Sammamish, Washington is making headlines around the country. Which is great because it means that people really are interested in hiring and firing decisions within Catholic institutions and perhaps even how those decisions get made. Which is why the Ockletree v. Franciscan case is so interesting.
In this case, after firing a Black, partially disabled man, and being sued for being in violation of Washington’s antidiscrimination laws, Franciscan Health didn’t say that it didn’t discriminate. It argued instead that, as a religious institution, it is not bound by Washington’s antidiscrimination law, including the language that says every Washington citizen has “The right to be free from discrimination because of race, creed, color, national origin, sex, honorably discharged veteran or military status, sexual orientation, or the presence of any sensory, mental, or physical disability…” If you work for a religious entity, Franciscan says, that law simply doesn’t apply.
If Franciscan wins this case, all employees in all Catholic-affiliated health systems in WA State will lack protection under Washington law, and instead will be subject to the “moral authority” and hiring and firing discretion of three Catholic bishops.
Consistent with then Archbishop (now Cardinal) Timothy Dolan’s letter/statement regarding who has “authoritative resolution” over Catholic health care ministries, Archbishop J. Peter Sartain is the supreme “moral authority” over all Catholic health systems in the western third of Washington State, including the Seattle area, the Olympic Peninsula, Vancouver, and up into Bellingham. When there’s a violation of doctrine, he’s the enforcer. And as the firing of vice principal Mark Zmuda from Eastside Catholic shows, Archbishop J. Peter Sartain is happy to enforce violations of doctrine that involve same-sex marriage.
Because this is such an important case, and will affect the rights of tens of thousands of employees here in Washington State, it’s fascinating to review the oral arguments made before the Washington Supreme Court by Franciscan’s attorney, Mary Spillane. In oral arguments last Spring, she stated:
- “Infused within their (Franciscan’s) work as a hospital is religion”
- “There is no fundamental right that is at risk here”
- “It’s intrusive for a court to be inquiring into the employment decisions of a religious organization – it would place a burden onto religious organizations…”
- “It can be exceeding costly to comply (with WA antidiscrimination laws)…..the legislature could also be looking at – we don’t want to put additional burden on them….”
- “Exclusion of religious nonprofits (from Washington’s anti-discrimination laws) doesn’t benefit certain businesses at the expense of others…”
It’s hard to know how Washington’s Supreme Court will rule, but let’s just pull apart these arguments one by one from a layperson’s perspective:
1. Religion IS infused into every aspect of Franciscan’s work, which is why it and other Catholic health care ministries in Washington State should be prohibited from receiving public funding. There is no way to separate out the “religious” aspects of their work from the nonreligious aspects of their work. In fact, when it comes to physicians and other professional staff, the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care say specifically that “(the) professional-patient relationship is never separated, then, from the Catholic identity of the health care institution.”
2) If it’s not a “fundamental right” for Washington workers to feel secure in the knowledge that their rights are protected under Washington’s antidiscrimination laws, perhaps there are no “fundamental rights” at all. Maybe rights secured under antidiscrimination laws aren’t worth protecting for anyone and we should go back to the days when you could fire someone for being Black, female, or just having an awkward limp.
3) If it’s intrusive for the State to be looking into the hiring decisions of a religious institution, perhaps the state should not be involved at all. Maybe Washington State should simply quit licensing Catholic-affiliated entities (including health care ministries), and the people who work for them, and just operate by the motto: “They’re Churches, and what happens there is not the State’s concern.”
This could actually make things easier for everyone. After all, when the State issues a license, especially a professional license, there’s an expectation that the professional will operate by professional standards and codes of conduct. But when an institution requires that an ob-gyn not dispense birth control, not perform tubal ligations, not perform a “direct” abortion, even to save a woman’s life, then that ob-gyn isn’t operating according to professional standards and the issuance of a license becomes downright deceptive, and it’s best if everyone’s just upfront about that. State licensing should really only occur when the State has the ability to “intrude” enough to make sure that an institution is operating according to the law, and that professionals employed are duly licensed and performing to professional standards. Besides, not licensing Catholic hospitals or the staff employed there would likely free up State resources that can be used elsewhere.
4) If it’s too costly and burdensome for an organization with more than $12 billion in revenue to comply with Washington State’s antidiscrimination laws, perhaps we should exempt all organizations with less han $12 billion in revenue from Washington laws. After all, we don’t want laws to be “burdensome.”
5) It should be obvious that not having to comply with a law doesn’t give a huge $12 billion organization any special privileges when compared with its competition. That’s just silly talk. Why should it cost anything for UW Medicine or Virgina Mason to comply with Washington State laws? Why should it ever cost anybody to comply with any law?
If you want to view the footage from the oral arguments for yourself, click this link. Extra points for being the first person to identify the Supreme Court Justice who said: “Would it surprise you to know that small employers are a large employer in this state?”