The Washington Court of Appeals recently declined to allow a religious discrimination claim under state discrimination statutes based on a “failure to accommodate” theory. In Short v. Battle Ground School District, No. 42011-2-II (Div. 2, June 26, 2012), the plaintiff, Ms. Short, was a “devout Christian woman with deeply held religious beliefs.” Plaintiff’s job was to assist the school district superintendent, but she was also assigned to assist the school district’s public information officer at times. The superintendent eventually asked the plaintiff to lie to the public information officer, which violated plaintiff’s religious beliefs. Plaintiff refused to lie, allegedly causing the superintendent to yell at plaintiff and conduct herself in a manner that the plaintiff found “increasingly intolerable.” Plaintiff asked to take leave because of the alleged treatment from the superintendent, eventually resigning while on leave.
Plaintiff sued the school district and the superintendent alleging, among other things, “failure to accommodate” her religious beliefs under the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD), RCW 49.60. While federal law allows a religious discrimination claim for “failure to accommodate” religious beliefs, the court of appeals determined that the WLAD does not recognize such a claim. In making its determination, the court cited a previous Washington Supreme Court opinion (Hiatt v. Walker Chevrolet Co.) pointing out that federal Title VII was amended at one point to expressly impose an affirmative duty on employers to accommodate their employees’ religious beliefs, while the Washington legislature and Human Rights Commission (HRC) did not similarly amend the WLAD. In Hiatt, the Washington Supreme Court left open the question whether the WLAD might implicitly require accommodation of religious beliefs. In Short, the court of appeals found that it does not. The court declined to find that the WLAD implied a “failure to accommodate” religious beliefs, citing no indication from the legislature or HRC that such a claim was originally contemplated. The court stated that they cannot judicially promulgate legislation or administrative regulations for a “failure to accommodate” claim under the WLAD when the “government branches tasked with establishing public policies relating to WLAD have remained silent, despite sweeping changes at the federal level.”