Washington’s Supreme Court narrowly voted to reinstate a lawsuit by four catering workers at a Seattle-Tacoma International Airport who complained the lunches provided by their employer violated their religious beliefs.
In doing so, the court found that, under the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD), employers must make reasonable accommodations for religious practices. Federal law, under Title VII, already requires this and WLAD implied it, but on Thursday the court made it clear.
The 5-4 ruling clears up ambiguity that has existed in state anti-discrimination laws and makes it clear that workers can sue over disparate treatment and discrimination in state court even if some federal civil-rights avenues are not available.
“It is clear that the decision paves the way for a new era in religious tolerance in Washington’s workplaces,” said Seth Rosenberg, one of the lawyers who filed a class-action lawsuit against Gate Gourmet, which is accused of failing to accommodate workers’ religious dietary needs.
The four plaintiffs work for Gate Gourmet, an international company that provides meals for airline passengers. Security concerns prevent workers from bringing their own lunches or leaving work during their 30-minute lunch break.
Instead, the company provides meals — one meat, one vegetarian — to its workers.
The workers represent religions or creeds that require special diets — Orthodox Christian, Muslim, Hindu and vegetarian — and claim the company’s options failed to meet their needs. The workers also accuse Gate Gourmet of battery for allowing them to unknowingly consume pork and beef in conflict with their beliefs.
The company, which is based in Reston, Va., declined to comment on the ruling.
“Gate Gourmet takes its legal obligations very seriously, especially those that are designed to protect the rights of its employees,” said spokeswoman Christina Ulosevich. “We have and will continue to abide by all applicable employment-related laws and policies.”
Their employees filed their lawsuit in King County Superior Court, where in 2012 then-Judge Mary Yu dismissed it before trial. She found that Washington’s discrimination law did not require employers to accommodate their workers’ religious practices.
Yu has since been appointed to the Supreme Court but did not participate in the ruling.
Writing for the majority, Supreme Court Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud noted that WLAD predates Title VII, the federal anti-discrimination act passed by Congress in 1964. The state law does not contain explicit language requiring religious accommodation found in federal statute, and some lower state courts have concluded that its absence means employers don’t have to make such accommodations under state law.
“The employees ... conclude that the WLAD imposes the same implicit duty on the employer” required by Title VII, McCloud wrote. “We agree with the employees.”
Justice Barbara Madsen, writing for the minority, said the decision “encroaches on the exclusive law making function of the Legislature” by implying an accommodation that isn’t written in the law.
The company, in providing lunches, has ostensibly provided vegetarian and non-vegetarian options, but the workers allege the vegetarian options include animal by-products. The company also reportedly switched from turkey meatballs to beef-and-pork meatballs without telling them.
Jeffrey Needle, who filed a brief in the case on behalf of Washington Employment Lawyers Association — whose members represent workers in employment claims — said the ruling bolsters federal law already in place.
But he added that it does not change the fact that employers must provide accommodations only if doing so does not present an “undue burden” on the business.
The case has been closely watched by legal groups not so much for its merits but for the precedent it could set in finally clarifying the state’s discrimination law.
“It’s an excellent decision,” Needle said. “It gets to the right place. But we won’t be doing anything here that isn’t done in federal law. It doesn’t change much, but it is another option for employees.”