July 2014 Bar Bulletin
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July 2014 Bar Bulletin

Kumar v. Gate Gourmet, Inc. Protecting Religious Rights at Work

By Karen Sutherland

 

In a recent decision, Kumar v. Gate Gourmet, Inc.,1 a five-member majority of the Washington Supreme Court held that Washington's Law Against Discrimination (WLAD)2 "creates a cause of action for failure to reasonably accommodate an employee's religious practices."

This holding may come as no surprise to regular readers of the Bar Bulletin in light of prior articles regarding accommodation of religious beliefs,3 but the prior articles addressed federal law,4 not state law. The distinction can be important because there is a fairly short timeframe for pursuing violations of Title VII as compared to the WLAD.5 Additionally, the WLAD applies to most employers with eight or more employees,6 which is a lower threshold than Title VII,7 and the WLAD has been applied in some circumstances to independent contractors.8

In Kumar, Gate Gourmet's meal policy barred employees from bringing their own food for lunch for security reasons, leaving only employer-provided food for the workers to eat.9 The meals were ostensibly vegetarian or meat based, but the employees alleged that Gate Gourmet used animal by-products in the "vegetarian" option.

The employees also alleged they had informed Gate Gourmet that their religious beliefs prohibited them from eating the beef-pork meatballs the company served and that Gate Gourmet responded by temporarily switching to turkey meatballs, but later switched back to the beef-pork mixture without notifying the employees, and that it refused to alter the employee meals.10

The employees brought a class action lawsuit alleging that Gate Gourmet's knowing refusal to label and "adapt[] its menu to accommodate the tenets of [their] beliefs and religions" violated the WLAD under two legal theories: "(1) that Gate Gourmet's meal policy constituted a failure to reasonably accommodate the employees' religious practices and (2) that the meal policy has a disparate impact on employees who adhere to certain religions." The employees also claimed battery and negligent infliction of emotional distress. The trial court granted Gate Gourmet's motion to dismiss under CR 12(b)(6).

The Supreme Court's analysis first determined that the WLAD creates a private cause of action for employment discrimination on the basis of religion. The Court then looked to federal antidiscrimination law for guidance, while noting that federal cases are not binding and that it is "free to adopt those theories and rationale which best further the purposes and mandates of our state statute."

The Court noted its disapproval of the analysis in a Court of Appeals case relied on by the trial court, Short v. Battleground School District,11 that held that the WLAD does not require employers to make reasonable accommodations for their employees' religious practices.12 The Court then provided a brief history of the reasonable accommodation requirement, followed by an overview of state and federal disparate impact jurisprudence, and held as follows:

Disparate impact and reasonable accommodation claims both prevent employers from adopting facially neutral policies that create or perpetuate discriminatory effects. There is no logical reason to recognize in the WLAD an implied prohibition on facially neutral policies that have disparate impacts but not an implied requirement to reasonably accommodate religious practices, thereby avoiding such disparate impacts.


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