• Key point 8-08.1. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers engaged in commerce and having at least 15 employees from discriminating in any employment decision on the basis of race, color, national origin, gender, or religion. Religious organizations are exempt from the ban on religious discrimination, but not from the other prohibited forms of discrimination.
A Washington state appeals court ruled that a city’s nondiscrimination law could not be applied against religious organizations since such organizations were exempt from the state’s nondiscrimination law. Two employees of a hospital owned and operated by the Catholic Church filed grievances with their city’s human rights department, alleging that the hospital had discriminated against them on the basis of religion, disability, race, and national origin, in violation of a city nondiscrimination ordinance. The hospital challenged the city’s jurisdiction to enforce its ordinance against it because the hospital was exempt from the state nondiscrimination law. The matter was presented to a civil court for review, and the court ruled that the city’s human rights department did not have authority to enforce its nondiscrimination law against the hospital. The city appealed.
The appeals court noted that the state nondiscrimination law permits injured persons to bring a civil action for employment discrimination, and that its definition of a covered “employer” includes “any person acting in the interest of an employer … who employs eight or more persons, and does not include any religious or sectarian organization not organized for private profit.” The law permits cities to enact their own nondiscrimination ordinances and provide remedies for acts of discrimination in employment, so long as such ordinances and remedies are consistent with state law.
The city’s nondiscrimination law defines a covered “employer” as “any person … acting in the interests of an employer … or who has any persons in his, her or its employ.” This definition does not exempt religious organizations. The city argued that it can provide remedies greater than those permitted by state law, and therefore its nondiscrimination law was valid and could be enforced against religious organizations including the hospital.
The court noted that “cities may enact ordinances prohibiting the same acts state law prohibits as long as the city ordinance does not conflict with the general laws of the state.” Further, a local ordinance does not conflict with state law “merely because one prohibits a wider scope of activity than the other.” In determining whether an ordinance conflicts with general laws, the test is, “Whether the ordinance permits or licenses that which the statute forbids and prohibits, and vice versa.” The city attempted to justify its nondiscrimination law under this rule by asserting that it did not “conflict” with the state law, but rather “went further” in attempting to eradicate discrimination in employment. The appeals court disagreed, noting that the city was ignoring the fact that “the state law expressly exempts religious nonprofit groups.” It concluded, “Although the state anti-discrimination law does not authorize religious groups to discriminate, it does authorize their exemption from the law’s reach. The statutory language indicates an affirmative policy choice rather than an omission. Because the city’s ordinance contravenes this policy choice, it must give way.”
Application. This case will be useful to any church that is sued as a result of an alleged violation of a city’s human rights ordinance. If a state nondiscrimination law exempts religious organizations, as some do, then the city’s ordinance cannot apply to them. City of Tacoma v. Franciscan Foundation, 972 P.2d 566 (Wash. App. 1999). The Civil Rights Act of 1964
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