Supreme Court in Washington state to hear big case about religion and work

Laifa Jackson, who is Muslim, says her manager is understanding when it comes to her faith at work. She works as a customer-service representative for PTT Telekom in Winter Park, Fla. Photo: MCT

SEATTLE — Washington state's Supreme Court will hear an important case Tuesday. The case is about businesses and religion.

The court could change how businesses have to act toward the religious beliefs of their workers.

There are many questions about religion at work. Should businesses give workers days off for religious holidays? Should employees have time to pray during work hours?

This case involves four workers at Gate Gourmet. The company makes food for airline passengers. For safety reasons, it does not let workers bring their own meals to work.

Case About Food Served To Employees

The men say the meals the company served to the workers had pork in them. Some of the workers thought it was chicken or beef. The men do not eat pork or some other foods because of their religions or other beliefs.

The four men are a vegetarian, an Orthodox Christian, a Muslim and a Hindu.

Asegedew Gefe is one of the workers. He is an Orthodox Christian. He belongs to a form of Christianity found in Ethiopia and Egypt. Since 2010, he has been working at Gate’s warehouse at Seattle's airport.

“We’re not asking for this or that,” he said. “If it’s broccoli, tell us it’s broccoli. If it’s pork, tell us pork.”

But does the company have to?

Companies are not allowed to fire or not hire someone because of the person's religion. But the law is not clear about religious practices at work. Must companies take steps to allow the practices? This comes at a time when workers are increasingly expressing their religion in the workplace.

Some say the protection of religion at work is not spelled out in state law. But it is still understood as being part of the law, they say.

High Court Takes Another Look

The case could set clear rules for what businesses must do.

A year ago, Washington judge Mary Yu threw out the workers’ lawsuit. She said state law does not force businesses to allow for religious practices. She based her ruling on a previous state Supreme Court decision.

Now the Supreme Court is taking another look at the case.

Aaron Rocke is the lawyer for the Gate workers. He said that the case would show whether Washington state respects religion in the workplace or not.

There are not many complaints to authorities involving religion at work. But they have been on the rise since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

A survey this year found the most common problems involving religion at work. One was being made to work on a religious holiday. Another was going to company events where the food served was not allowed by the religions of some of the workers.

State Law Not Clear Enough, Lawyer Says

A national law was passed in 1964 to prevent hiring for jobs based on religion. It was also updated to allow for the practice of religion at work.

But the rules about practicing religion at work are not clear in Washington state.

So most lawyers in Washington state file such worker cases in national courts. They avoid state courts.

Hardeep Rekhi is a lawyer in Seattle. He recently won a lawsuit he filed for a Muslim man. The worker was fired from his job after he refused to get rid of his beard. His religion promotes the wearing of beards.

Rekhi filed the case in national courts rather than state court.  The state law wasn't clear enough, he said.

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