April 2015 Bar Bulletin
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April 2015 Bar Bulletin

Religious Organization Exceptions to Antidiscrimination Laws

By Karen Sutherland


Both state and federal laws against discrimination contain exceptions for religious organizations. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII") includes the following language:

(a) Inapplicability of subchapter to certain aliens and employees of religious entities

This subchapter shall not apply to an employer with respect to the employment of aliens outside any State, or to a religious corporation, association, educational institution, or society with respect to the employment of individuals of a particular religion to perform work connected with the carrying on by such corporation, association, educational institution, or society of its activities.1

Washington's Law against Discrimination (WLAD) excepts nonprofit religious organizations from the definition of "employer:"

"Employer" includes any person acting in the interest of an employer, directly or indirectly, who employs eight or more persons, and does not include any religious or sectarian organization not organized for private profit.2

The First Amendment,3 state constitutions and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA)4 and other laws also protect religious organizations from state interference.

Illustrative Cases Interpreting Title VII

There are numerous cases interpreting the scope of Title VII's exception for religious organizations. The following are some illustrative examples.

In Corporation of the Presiding Bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints v. Amos,5 the U.S. Supreme Court held that religious organizations were exempt from Title VII's prohibition on discrimination with respect to their secular nonprofit activities, and that this exemption did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

In Amos, the plaintiff was a building engineer at a nonprofit gymnasium operated by the Corporation of the Presiding Bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. He was allegedly discharged because he failed to qualify for a certificate stating that he was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and eligible to attend its temples.6

Citing the Amos decision, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Spencer v. World Vision, Inc.,7 held that World Vision, a "faith-based humanitarian organization," qualifies as an entity exempt from Title VII "if it is organized for a religious purpose, is engaged primarily in carrying out that religious purpose, holds itself out to the public as an entity for carrying out that religious purpose, and does not engage primarily or substantially in the exchange of goods or services for money beyond nominal amounts."8

To briefly summarize the facts in Spencer, World Vision allegedly discharged some of its employees when it discovered that they "denied the deity of Jesus Christ and disavowed the doctrine of the Trinity," which was incompatible with World Vision's beliefs.9

In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc,10 the Supreme Court held that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services could not require closely held corporations to provide health insurance coverage for contraception methods that violated the sincerely held religious beliefs of the companies' owners under the RFRA. Although Spencer was decided under Title VII and not under RFRA, it was cited in Justice Ginsberg's dissent in Hobby Lobby:

The Court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield, cf. Spencer v. World Vision, Inc., ... by its immoderate reading of RFRA. I would confine religious exemptions under that Act to organizations formed "for a religious purpose," "engage[d] primarily in carrying out that religious purpose," and not "engaged ... substantially in the exchange of goods or services for money beyond nominal amounts."11

While it does not interpret Title VII, the Hobby Lobby case is instructive because it illustrates another basis upon which federal12 antidiscrimination laws may not apply to corporate employers.

Illustrative Cases Interpreting the WLAD

There are also several cases interpreting the scope of the WLAD's exception for religious organizations. The following are some illustrative examples.

In Ockletree v. Franciscan Health System,13 the plaintiff, Larry Ockletree, was employed by the Franciscan Health System (FHS) as a security guard at St. Joseph's Hospital. He claimed "discrimination on the basis of race and disability in violation of federal law and the WLAD."14 FHS claimed that as a nonprofit religious organization, it was exempt from the WLAD's definition of "employer."15

The U.S. District Court certified two questions to the Washington Supreme Court that focused on whether the WLAD's exception for religious nonprofit organizations violated the Washington Constitution and whether it was "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?"16

The Washington Supreme Court found that the WLAD's nonprofit religious exception was not unconstitutional and held that "the wide scope of WLAD justifies the broader exemption under the WLAD for religious employers than under Title VII."17 The Court also noted, "It may be that Ockletree could find protection under federal law, but we leave that issue to the federal court to decide."18

In Rahim v. Providence Health and Services,19 the U.S. District Court declined to rule on the constitutionality of the WLAD's exemption for religious nonprofit employers, noting that when he certified constitutional questions to the Washington Supreme Court in Ockletree, Judge Leighton had "deferred consideration of a challenge to Washington's religious organization exemption via the United States Constitution." The court in Rahim also noted that even if the Title VII claims were dismissed, the plaintiff's breach of contract and 42 U.S.C. 1981 claims would remain part of the case.

The Bottom Line

The religious organization exceptions to Title VII and the WLAD are not limited to claims by individuals acting in a ministerial capacity, nor are they limited to churches. Additionally, claims under any federal antidiscrimination laws that "substantially burden a person's exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability" 20 may raise issues under RFRA's protection of "any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief" for the reasons set forth in Hobby Lobby.

1 42 U.S.C. 2000e-1.

2 RCW 49.60.040 (11).

3 See, e.g., Erdman v. Chapel Hill Presbyterian Church, 175 Wn.2d 659, 286 P.3d 357 (2012) (negligent hiring/supervision claims barred by the First Amendment); but see Doe v. Corporation of Catholic Bishop of Yakima, 957 F. Supp. 1225, 1231 (E.D. Wash. 2013) (Erdman does not apply to claims based on child sexual abuse).

4 107 Stat. 1488, 42 U.S.C. 2000bb et seq.

5 483 U.S. 327 (1987).

6 Id. at 330.

7 619 F.3d 723 (9th Cir.), as amended on January 25, 2011, cert. denied, 132 S. Ct. 96 (2011).

8 Id. at 724.

9 Id.

10 134 S. Ct. 2751 (2014).

11 134 S. Ct. at 2805–06.

12 Under the RFRA, "Government" "includes a branch, department, agency, instrumentality, and official (or other person acting under color of law) of the United States, or of a covered entity." "Covered entity" "means the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and each territory and possession of the United States." 42 U.S.C. 2000bb-2(1) and (2).

13 179 Wn.2d 769, 317 P.3d 1009 (2014).

14 317 P.3d at 1012.

15 Id.

16 Id.

17 Id. at 1018.

18 Id. at 1017.

19 Case No. C13-1499RAJ (W.D. Wash. May 1, 2014).

20 42 U.S.C. 2000bb-1(a), (b); see also 134 S. Ct. at 2767 (explaining scope of RFRA).


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