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June 2014

Employers Must Accommodate Religious Beliefs and Practices Under Washington State’s Anti-Discrimination Law

In its May 22 decision, the Washington Supreme Court confirmed that under the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD), RCW 49.60, et seq., employers must provide reasonable accommodations to employees for religious beliefs and practices, and employers could be liable for failing to offer such reasonable accommodations.

In Kumar v. Gate Gourmet, Inc., the plaintiffs alleged that Gate Gourmet’s meal policy, which bars employees from bringing their own food for lunch (for security reasons), forced them to work without food or to eat food that violates their religious beliefs. Gate Gourmet, a company that prepares meals for service on planes and trains, provides its employees with meals to consume on their breaks.  Gate Gourmet was ostensibly providing one vegetarian meal option and one meat-based meal option.  However, the employees alleged that the vegetarian meals contained animal by-products and that the meat-based meals offered contained various animal meats that were not fully disclosed.  Consuming certain meats and animal by-products violated the plaintiffs’ religious and moral beliefs, and the plaintiffs brought a class action alleging (1) the employer’s meal policy failed to accommodate the employees’ religious practices; and (2) the meal policy had a disparate impact on the employees who adhere to certain religions. 

The trial court dismissed the claims finding that the WLAD contains no express requirement that employers make reasonable accommodations for their employees’ religious practices.  The Washington Supreme Court reversed, making it clear that the WLAD imposes the same implicit duty as Title VII to reasonably accommodate employees’ religious practices. The court reasoned that although the WLAD does not expressly provide for reasonable accommodation for religious requirements, Title VII expressly affirms religious reasonable accommodations.  Furthermore, the U.S. Supreme Court interprets Title VII as barring practices that produce disparate impacts, and the Washington Supreme Court has held the WLAD has those same goals and recognizes the disparate impact cause of action.

Therefore, under the WLAD, the disparate impact and religious accommodation doctrines prevent employers from adopting facially neutral policies that create or perpetuate discriminatory effects.  The case was remanded to the trial court for further proceedings. 

To view the opinion in Kumar v. Gate Gourmet, Inc., No. 88062-0, click here.

Employment Law

Sarah N. Turner

Employment Law