February 2016 Bar Bulletin
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February 2016 Bar Bulletin

Religious Discrimination Cases in the Secular Pacific Northwest

By Alexis Knutson

 

The South has Evangelical Christians, the Midwest has Protestant Christians, the Northeast and Southwest have Catholics, and the Pacific Northwest has “nones.” In 2014, the Public Religion Research Institute’s American Values Atlas found that Seattle was tied at second place with San Francisco in the number of religiously unaffiliated residents, second only to Portland. The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey reported that the Pacific Northwest has a larger percentage of “nones,” or people who categorize their religious affiliation as “none,” than there are members of any religious group.

This may not come as a surprise to those who make their lives in King County (when doing mock trials in Seattle we are even able to draw similar mock jurors on Saturdays and Sundays due to this secularity). But how does that influence King County jurors’ reflections on religious claims in the courtroom?

In our work in the field of trial consulting in Seattle, our clients often ask what impact this religious stance, or lack thereof, will have on their religious discrimination cases. Attorneys wonder whether it will influence jurors’ interpretation of case facts and general leanings, allowing their biases and preconceptions to seep into deliberations.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys fear their client’s complaint will be discredited once jurors learn they highlight religious discrimination. Defense attorneys are equally concerned that, although not an especially religious jury pool, King County jurors will not feel it is their place to judge anyone at all on their religious preferences.

Our experience is that although King County jurors are not particularly religious, they still have strong values that guide their decision-making processes. As a result, they are more likely to base their decisions on case facts and social values than on their personal religious affiliation.

In some parts of the country, a claim of religious discrimination may result in community outrage and emotional reactions, particularly if the claimant was of the majority religion, thus motivating jurors to fight on their behalf. In the Pacific Northwest, the plaintiff’s religion becomes an additional fact of the case, but does not necessarily promote a visceral reaction.

In 2014, a nationwide Pew Research Center survey reported that religious groups tended to rate those in their own religious group more highly. This was unsurprising given that people favor those who are more similar to themselves. A particularly powerful finding from this survey was that people also rated groups more highly if they even knew one individual who belonged to the group in question.

The Pacific Northwest has a high diversity of religious makeup when compared to other regions, meaning there is no single dominant religious group that influences a singular social mindset. Due to the diversity of this region, and because there is no single dominant religious group, the likelihood of knowing persons from a variety of religious groups is high, presumably leading to more tolerance.

The Pew survey also found that young people and Democrats tend to rate other religious groups more favorably. Given that in our experience King County jurors tend to be liberal and younger, this is indicative of a more open-minded King County jury.

Due to this open-mindedness, the decision-making process would likely shift to reflect the values of the community. From our experience, the value of fairness is particularly strong in this region. What these jurors value more than faith or religion are fairness and consistency.

“My general experience with King County jurors is that they tend to be a relatively secular group,” says Blake Marks-Dias, a trial attorney at Riddell Williams. “At the same time, however, they hold a deep respect for other cultures and beliefs. Jurors will therefore be inclined to respond if they perceive that another person’s religion or culture is not being respected, particularly if it is in done a way that is shown to be unfair, arbitrary or inconsistent.”

We surely see the peripheral value of tolerance and acceptance of other’s beliefs, which undoubtedly is important to have, but in the hierarchy of values these values come after the core value of fairness and equity. When one person’s preference pushes back on equity for all, when one’s personal beliefs intrude upon other’s beliefs, this clash of values ends with fairness on top.

For example, in employment cases, companies are not expected to accommodate unreasonable requests or a request that would negatively impact other employees or the company as a whole. But companies are expected to accommodate if they have done so for others, and in the same ways.

In our experience, personal responsibility and choice are also highly regarded by King County jurors. If the individual has bypassed other options to accommodate their religious needs and instead chooses a path of litigation, jurors will be unmoved by their arguments. Jurors tend to look at whether the plaintiff made reasonable choices to accommodate their own religion, and determine if they had done enough for themselves before requesting accommodation from the company.

Take, for example, a case about a person who wants to take time off work to attend religious services without making up the time. Jurors may find this request unfair — “Of course everyone wants time off work to do other things, but we all have to go to work anyway.” The value of fairness would typically trump the religious request and lead to reduced sympathy for the plaintiff. When the request interferes with the value of fairness in the workplace, that fact is not easily ignored.

However, if the plaintiff claimed he or she had been unfairly discriminated against during the hiring process, reactions would differ. If there was evidence the plaintiff was bypassed for a job due to an anticipated religious accommodation request, or religious discrimination based on comments made during the interview, the value of fairness would likely motivate many jurors to deliberate as an advocate for the plaintiff. The element of choice would also be eliminated, as the plaintiff did not have a choice in the matter, and did nothing to bring about the negative outcome.


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