Ockletree v. Franciscan Health System, No. 88218-5 (view Court’s opinion)
The plaintiff in this case was employed by Franciscan Health Systems (FHS) as a security guard working in the emergency department at St. Joseph’s Hospital. During his employment, he suffered a stroke that left his nondominant arm impaired. FHS determined that Ockletree could no longer perform his job and terminated his employment.? Ockletree sued in state court, alleging discrimination on the basis of race and disability in violation of federal law and the WLAD. The case was removed to federal court, where FHS asserted that as a nonprofit religious organization, it was exempt from liability under the WLAD which expressly excludes from coverage “any religious or sectarian organization not organized for private profit.” RCW 49.60.040(11).? The federal district court certified two questions to the Washington Supreme Court: (1) whether the exemption of nonprofit religious organizations from the definition of “employer” under the WLAD violates article I, section 11 establishment clause or article I, section 12 privileges and immunities clause of the Washington Constitution; and (2) whether the exemption is unconstitutional as applied to an employee claiming that the religious non-profit organization discriminated against him for reasons wholly unrelated to any religious purpose, practice or activity.
In response to the certified questions, the Supreme Court issued three opinions. Justice Charles Johnson authored the lead opinion, in which Justices Madsen, Owens, and James Johnson joined. This plurality of four justices concluded that the exemption of nonprofit religious organizations from the WLAD did not grant a “privilege or immunity” for purpose of article I, section 12; and that even if it did implicate a “privilege or immunity,” reasonable grounds exist for the legislature to distinguish nonprofit religious organizations from other employers. The lead opinion also concluded that the WLAD’s definition of “employer” does not involve the appropriation of money or property, and therefore does not violate article 1, section 11’s establishment clause. The lead opinion did not directly address Ockletree’s “as applied” challenge.
Justice Stephens wrote the nominally dissenting opinion, in which Justices Gonz?lez, Fairhurst and McCloud joined. This plurality of four justices concluded that the exemption of nonprofit religious organizations from the WLAD did grant a “privilege or immunity” for such entities and that the legislature lacked reasonable economic or regulatory grounds for distinguishing between religious and secular nonprofits in applying the WLAD. The Stephens plurality concluded that, as applied to Ockletree, the WLAD exemption immunized FHS from liability for employment discrimination based on grounds unrelated to its religious beliefs or practice. Justice Stephens wrote that “the exemption is not necessary to satisfy FHS’s free exercise right and does not alleviate a substantial state-imposed burden on religious freedom. Consequently, it exceeds the limits of an accommodation of religion in violation of the federal establishment clause.” Thus, these four justices would hold that the exemption “cannot be applied to bar WLAD claims alleging race or disability discrimination.”
Justice Wiggins wrote a third opinion, which contains the holding of the Court’s majority. Justice Wiggins concurred with the dissenting opinion that the exemption of nonprofit religious organizations from the WLAD grants a “privilege or immunity,” yet also concurred with the lead opinion’s conclusion that reasonable grounds exist for the legislature to distinguish nonprofit religious organizations from other employers covered by the WLAD. According to the lead opinion and Justice Wiggins, exempting nonprofit religious organizations from the WLAD avoids excessive entanglement with religious doctrines and practices and facilitates the free exercise of religion guaranteed by the Washington Constitution. Thus, a five justice majority held that the WLAD’s exclusion of religious nonprofit organization from the definition of “employer” is facially constitutional.
However, with respect to the second certified question, Justice Wiggins joined the four justices led by Justice Stephens for a five justice majority to hold that the WLAD’s exclusion of religious nonprofit organizations was unconstitutional as applied to Ockletree. In reaching this conclusion, Justice Wiggins revised the second certified question and reasoned that the focus ought not to be on whether the employer discriminated on religious grounds, but rather should “depend entirely on whether the employee’s job responsibilities relate to the organization’s religious practices.” Justice Wiggans would find the WLAD’s exemption “constitutionally applied in cases in which the job description and responsibilities include duties that are religious or sectarian in nature.” Thus, a five justice majority held that the WLAD’s exclusion of religious nonprofit organization is unconstitutional when applied to an employee whose duties bear no relationship to religion or religious practices.
WELA filed an amicus brief and argued that the exemption conferred under the WLAD is an “immunity” under article I, section 12, and that the exemption was unconstitutional as applied to religious non-profits to the extent that they acted beyond the protections guaranteed under the First Amendment.