OLYMPIA, WASHINGTON –
On Tuesday, October 22, 2013, the Washington State Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Kumar v. Gate Gourmet, Inc. on the issue of whether a claim against an employer for failure to accommodate an employee’s religious belief or practice is cognizable under the Washington Law Against Discrimination, Ch. 49.60 RCW (“WLAD”).
The WLAD prohibits employers from discriminating against employees in compensation or terms or conditions of employment because of age, sex, marital status, sexual orientation, race, creed, color, national origin, veteran status, or disability. This case raises the issue of whether a failure to make reasonable accommodation for an employee’s sincere religious beliefs is implied in the statute.
Federal law requires employers to make a reasonable attempt to accommodate, but the question in this case was whether employers also had this requirement under state law. This is an unusual circumstance where an employer claims the right not to accommodate religious beliefs when accommodating them would not adversely affect customers, other employees, or adversely impact the health and safety of the workplace.
The plaintiff employees, including Hindus, Muslims, and Orthodox Christians filed suit claiming that Gate Gourmet violated their religious beliefs by putting meat in employee lunches labeled “vegetarian” and using pork in meat dishes without disclosing the contents. Gate Gourmet provides food service for airlines to accommodate a variety of religious dietary restrictions, but employees were prohibited from bringing their own lunches or going off-premises during lunch time due to security concerns.
According to the employees’ attorney, Seth Rosenberg, when people complained that the meat being served in the spaghetti sauce was pork, the company temporarily switched it to turkey and labeled it, but then switched back to pork without informing the employees. As a result, employees were unwittingly eating foods that violated their religious beliefs, and some chose to forego meals altogether rather than potentially violate their beliefs.
RealChangeNews.org reports that of the 160 employees at the Sea-Tac location (Note: The Seattle Times reports 130), 58 follow special diets including Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and Jews who do not eat pork, Hindus who do not eat beef, and others who are vegetarian.
The lead plaintiff, employee James Kumar, is Hindu whose faith teaches that cows are sacred and must not be eaten. As a result of learning that he has been unwittingly consuming beef, Kumar told RealChangeNews that he has to travel to India for a 10-day cleansing ritual. Kumar and other employees have asked the company to cover the trip at a cost of $20,000 per employee including the flight and missed wages.
Attorneys for Gate Gourmet have argued that there is no state law in Washington that would require employers to accommodate religious beliefs and practices. Further, Gate Gourmet argues that the employees did not suffer actual harm since they were not demoted or fired because of their beliefs. In contrast, attorneys for the plaintiffs argue that religious protection is an implied civil right, and that it could make a Washington a state where religious intolerance is enshrined in the law.
If the plaintiff employees lose at the Washington Supreme Court, religious discrimination cases will likely be filed in Federal rather than state court under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which provides that an employer is required to reasonably accommodate the religious belief of an employee or prospective employee, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship. However, while the WLAD covers employers with more than 8 employees, a federal case can only be brought against employers with more than 25 employees.
The current ambiguities in Washington state law and potential lack of protection for religious practices of employees underscore the need for a Washington Workplace Religious Freedom Act, which would require employers to demonstrate that an accommodation would require a “significant difficulty or expense” before denying an employee religious accommodation when it comes to dietary requirements, holy day observance, and religious garb.
Kumar v. Gate Gourmet, Inc. This case involves the question of whether a claim against an employer for failure to accommodate an employee’s religious belief or practice is cognizable under the Washington Law Against Discrimination, Ch. 49.60 RCW.
The Rosenberg Law Group has made several amicus briefs supportive of the plaintiffs available at their website.
A video of the oral argument in Kumar v. Gate Gourmet, Inc. is available here at The Capitol Record – October 22, 2013.