The Washington Supreme Court Mandates New Obligations for Employers Under State Law to Accommodate Employees’ Religious Beliefs

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In a dramatic shift in Washington state law on accommodating religious beliefs, the Washington Supreme Court’s decision in Kumar v. Gate Gourmet, Inc. recognized, for the first time, that the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD) imposes an obligation on employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees’ bona fide religious beliefs. The Kumar decision overruled an earlier appellate court decision holding that the WLAD does not recognize a “failure-to-accommodate” theory for religious accommodations. Thus, the Kumar decision has recognized a state law failure-to-accommodate claim where none previously existed.

Facially Neutral Meal Policy Gives Rise to a Class Action Claim Under the WLAD for Failure to Accommodate Religious Beliefs

Gate Gourmet provides meals for train and airplane meal service. For security reasons, the company meal policy prohibited employees from bringing their own food into the workplace and from leaving the premises during their 30-minute meal breaks to obtain food elsewhere. Instead, the company provided two meal options to its employees — one vegetarian and one meat-based. Certain employees alleged that the company-provided meals contained ingredients they could not eat due to their religious beliefs. For example, certain employees alleged that the “vegetarian” meals were actually made with animal by-products, which violated their religious beliefs. Similarly, other employees asserted that for religious reasons they could not eat the beef-pork meatballs provided in the company meals. When the employees raised their concerns about the meatballs to Gate Gourmet, the company allegedly temporarily switched to turkey meatballs, but subsequently switched back to the beef-pork meatballs without notifying the employees, and then refused to make any additional changes to the company-provided meals. The plaintiff-employees filed a class action lawsuit against the company, alleging, among other claims, that the company’s meal policy violated the WLAD by forcing employees to either consume foods that violated their religious beliefs or go without eating during their meal breaks.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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