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May 22, 2014 at 9:42 AM

Court: Sea-Tac workers can sue over lunch menus

Washington’s Supreme Court narrowly voted to reinstate a lawsuit by workers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport caterer who complained the lunches provided by their employer violated their religious beliefs.

In doing so, the court found that, under the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD), employers must make reasonable accommodations for religious practices. Federal law, under Title VII, already requires this and WLAD implied it, but on Thursday the court made it clear.

The 5-4 ruling clears up ambiguity that has existed in state anti-discrimination laws, and makes it clear that workers can sue over disparate treatment and discrimination in state court even if some federal civil-rights avenues are not available.

“It is clear that the decision paves the way for a new era in religious tolerance in Washington’s workplaces,” said Seth Rosenberg, one of the lawyers who filed a class-action lawsuit against Sea-Tac employer Gate Gourmet, who is accused of failing to accommodate workers’ religious dietary needs.

Gate Gourmet is an international company that provides meals for airline passengers. Security concerns prevent workers from bringing their own lunches and the company has provided meals — one meat, one vegetarian — to workers.

The employees who sued represent workers whose religion or beliefs require special diets — Orthodox Christian, Muslim, Hindu and vegetarian — and who allege those options failed to meet their needs. They allege the company allowed them to unknowingly consume pork, beef in conflict with their beliefs.

Their lawsuit was filed in King County Superior Court, where Judge Mary Yu dismissed it before trial. She found that WLAD did not require employers to accommodate their workers’ religious practices.

Writing for the majority, Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud noted that WLAD predates Title VII, the federal anti-discrimination act passed by Congress in 1964. The state law does not contain explicit language requiring religious accommodation found in federal statute, and some lower state courts have concluded that its absence means employers don’t have to make such accommodations under state law.

“The employees … conclude that the WLAD imposes the same implicit duty on the employer” required by Title VII, McCloud wrote. “We agree with the employees.”

Due to security concerns, the workers at Gate Gourmet can’t bring their own lunches to work. Nor can they leave work on their 30-minute lunch breaks.

Instead, the company provides their lunches. While there are ostensibly vegetarian and non-vegetarian options, the workers say the vegetarian options include animal by-products and allege the company switched from turkey meatballs to beef-and-pork meatballs without telling them.

A lower court held that Washington’s anti-discrimination law doesn’t allow people to sue when private employers fail to provide reasonable accommodations for the religious practices of their workers.

The case has been closely watched by legal groups not so much for its merits but for the precedent it could set in finally clarifying the state’s discrimination law. While it is illegal under state law to fire or refuse to hire someone because of his creed, defined as a system of religious beliefs, the law has been less clear  on whether employers must accommodate religious practices in the workplace, at a time when employees are increasingly asserting their religious identities at work.

Asegedew Gefe, one of the plaintiffs, is an Orthodox Christian who has been working at Gate Gourmet’s warehouse at Sea-Tac Airport since 2010.

“We’re not asking for this or that,” he told The Seattle Times last year. “If it’s broccoli, tell us it’s broccoli. If it’s pork tell us pork.”

In 2012, then-King County Superior Court Judge Mary Yu granted Gate’s request to dismiss the workers’ lawsuit, saying state law does not require employers to accommodate religious practices. Yu was recently appointed to the Washington Supreme Court, but did not participate in Thursday’s decision.

Yu wrote that her order was based on a state Court of Appeals decision in an earlier case in which a devout Christian woman sued the Battle Ground School District in Clark County for religious accommodation, saying her supervisor told her to relay false information to another employee against her religious beliefs.

The appeals-court judges dismissed that case, concluding that the high court, the Legislature and Human Rights Commission, which enforces the state anti-discrimination law, had never formally recognized religious accommodation under state law.

Comments | More in General news, The Blotter | Topics: Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Washington State Supreme Court

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