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California and the West

Ruling Shields Religious Employers' Status

Court: State justices uphold protection against bias claims in case brought by hospital worker. But ruling's impact is blunted by new law broadening such employees' right to sue.


SAN FRANCISCO — The California Supreme Court on Thursday ventured into an increasingly unsettled area of state law: whether people who work for religious institutions can sue for discrimination.

The court ruled unanimously Thursday that state law had long given religious hospitals in California broad protection against discrimination lawsuits.

But the ruling will affect only pending cases because the Legislature, in a little noticed move, changed the law last year.

William Quackenbush, an appellate employment lawyer, said the new law, which took effect Jan. 1, generally allows workers who are not engaged in religious duties to sue religious hospitals for discrimination based on race, sex, age and other distinctions banned by state law.

"It was intended to address these hospital chains that employ thousands and thousands of employees," said Quackenbush, who represented the California Employment Lawyers Assn. in Thursday's case.

The state high court took Thursday's case long before the new law was enacted. Quackenbush said the broad protections the ruling gives religious hospitals will be applied only in disputes that occurred before the new law's effective date.

"Fortunately for employees, the law was changed in employees' favor to make it a little bit more difficult for religious employers to claim an exemption," said the San Mateo lawyer.

But Jeffrey Berman, who represented various religious organizations in the Supreme Court case, contended that Thursday's decision still gives religious employers an important advantage in discrimination suits.

Berman noted that the court's ruling could affect lawsuits against religious educational institutions, which he said remain exempt from the state's antidiscrimination law.

"They have defined what it is to be a religious employer and defined it broadly," Berman said. "It includes groups that do things other than engage in proselyting."

The case was brought by Alacoque Kelly, a nurse at Methodist Hospital of Southern California in Arcadia. She was fired in 1991 on the grounds that she had failed to return to work after a medical leave expired.

Kelly, who was 50 at the time, charged the hospital with age discrimination. She contended that the hospital was not protected by the religious exemption because its primary purpose was to care for the ill, regardless of religion.

The hospital argued that any religious corporation not organized for private profit was exempt from the state's antidiscrimination law.

A Superior Court judge and a Court of Appeal ruled for the hospital.

Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, writing for the Supreme Court in Monday's ruling, Kelly vs. Methodist Hospital (S053888), agreed with the lower courts. She said the hospital was founded by a religious group and partly controlled by that group.

"The religious entities to be exempted are not limited to religious organizations solely engaged in worship and proselytization of their faith," Werdegar wrote.

Francisco Lobaco, legislative director for the California American Civil Liberties Union, said the new law that permits religious hospitals to be sued for discrimination has only minor exceptions.

"Generally speaking, you can discriminate on the basis of religion for certain executive positions and, of course, for any religious-based position in the corporation," Lobaco said.

He said the ACLU supported doing away with the exemption. Until the change, "nurses and janitors and anybody else who worked for the hospitals could be fired under California law because they were black or women," Lobaco said.

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