Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD) Extends Employer Liability for Religious Discrimination
The Washington State Supreme Court today announced its decision that Washington employers with 8 or more employees can be sued under the Washington Law Against Discrimination (RCW 49.060.120) for failing to offer reasonable accommodations to their employees religious beliefs, Kumar v. Gate Gourmet, Inc.
The plaintiff alleged that their employer’s policy of requiring employees to consume only employer provided meals when at work violated their religious beliefs, due to the contamination of animal products or by-products in the preparation of the meals. Although WLAD has no express requirement requiring employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for employees’ religious practices, the Court determined that the silence on this issue endorses rather than bars a religious anti-discrimination theory.
This decision raises at least three issues which impact Washington employers now:
- Liability for allegations of religious discrimination is expanded from the federal Title VII level of employers with 15 employees to a state standard of employers with 8 or more employees.
- The Court decided that a failure to expressly disavow any cause of action for religion-based “reasonable accommodations” was sufficient to find an intent to include such a cause of action in the statute. This type of statutory interpretation can potentially be expanded to other causes of action for discrimination.
- The Court approved the plaintiffs moving forward under a disparate impact theory of discrimination, meaning that showing a discriminatory intent by the employer may not be necessary in certain claims.
Small employers in Washington must now be prepared to consider requests for religious accommodation from their employees. A fuller discussion of this opinion will be had at the Helsell Fetterman Employment Law Breakfast on June 3 in our Seattle offices.