Washington Court of Appeals Issues New Decision Which Defines Reasonable Accommodations of Religious Beliefs – and Raises New Questions For Employers
The Washington Court of Appeals, Division 3, issued a decision on September 20, 2022 defining for the first time what is a “reasonable accommodation” of an employee’s religious practices under state law.
In the recently published decision of Suarez v. State, the Court of Appeals adopted the federal definition that “a reasonable accommodation is one that resolves the conflict between the employee’s work duties and religious beliefs and does not impact their benefits or job status.”
The recent Court of Appeals decision also offers guidance on how to determine when a religious accommodation creates an “undue hardship,” such that the employer does not have to grant the accommodation.
Right to Religious Accommodations in Washington
In 2014, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD) includes an implicit right to religious accommodations. Kumar v. Gate Gourmet, 180 Wash.2d 481, 501, 325 P.3d, 193 (2014).
The Supreme Court held, in Kumar, that an employee establishes a prima facie claim for failure to accommodate religious beliefs by showing:
The employee had a bona fide religious belief, the practice of which conflicted with employment duties;
The employee informed the employer of the belief and the conflict with their job duties; and
The employer responded by subjecting the employee to threatened or actual discriminatory treatment.
Employer’s Defense to Failure to Accommodate Religious Beliefs
If the employee presents evidence of the above three elements, the employer can defend the claim by showing that:
It offered the employee a reasonable accommodation OR
The accommodation would cause undue hardship to the employer.
Suarez Sought Accommodations of Christian Beliefs
In Suarez v. State, the plaintiff was a Christian nurse who observed Saturdays as the Sabbath and celebrated seven religious holidays throughout the year. She sued her employer, the Yakima School District, alleging failure to accommodate because she was not given a schedule with Saturdays off and her requests to take leave on some holidays were denied.
The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s ruling granting summary judgment for the school district on the failure to accommodate claim under WLAD.
School District Failed to Show More Than Minimal Cost
Regarding Suarez’s request for religious leave, the Court found that the school district had not presented enough evidence to prevail on summary judgment because it did not show evidence the cost was more than de minimus. The Court noted this analysis depends on the size of the employer, as calling in an employee for overtime might be significant to a smaller employer, but not a large one.
The Court also noted that the record showed employees frequently called out as “unavailable” with no further explanation. The Court felt this raised questions about whether granting Suarez’s request caused an undue hardship, because it suggested that the school district was accommodating unplanned leave for secular reasons other than sickness.
School District Did Not Advise Suarez to Apply for Open Job
Regarding Suarez’s request for a schedule allowing her to have Saturdays off, the Court agreed with the school district that it would be an undue hardship for it to violate its collective bargaining agreement by changing her position without using the bidding system in the CBA.
However, the Court agreed with Suarez that the school district could have potentially accommodated her by advising her to apply for a position with scheduled days off that did not conflict with her Sabbath. Suarez presented evidence that during her employment, a job opened up that was filled by a person with less experience than her which did not require Saturday work.
The Court found that “if this position would have resolved the conflict,” the school district should have suggested Suarez apply for the position.
What the Suarez Decision Means to Employers
The Court’s holding in Suarez specifically addresses the requirements for state employers to show undue hardship, adopting the factors outlined in WAC 82-56-020 for when a state employer may deny a request for leave.
While the Court did not clearly extend its holding to private employers, the decision strongly suggests any employers will need to show that a requested religious accommodation would cause significant difficulty and expense to avoid liability under the Washington Law Against Discrimination for failure to accommodate.
The Suarez decision also highlights how difficult it can be to determine whether an accommodation creates an undue hardship.
At a minimum, it is clear an employer considering denying an accommodation request should be prepared to show evidence of the financial impact of the decision, and that the impact is not minimal, considering the size of the organization. The decision also highlights that an employer should consider whether it is granting similar requests for secular, non-protected reasons.
One of the more difficult aspects of this decision is the Court’s holding that an employer should take affirmative steps such as advising an employee to apply for a different open position if this resolves the conflict between the employee’s job duties and their religious beliefs.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Robert Lawrence-Berrey noted that the Court’s decision is inconsistent with federal case law which has not found reasonable accommodation to require this kind of “hand-holding” action by the employer.
It is yet to be seen if the Yakima School District will appeal this decision. Hopefully, the Washington Supreme Court will provide more clarity on appeal as to when – or if – it is a reasonable accommodation for an employer to advise an employee to apply for a new job or take similar steps.
Responding to a request for religious accommodation can be complicated. If you are an employer with questions about how to navigate an accommodation issue, please contact me or another experienced SBH employment attorney. I can be reached at or 503-595-6113.