Eastside Catholic HS lawsuit may set statewide precedent




Posted on March 7, 2014 at 5:10 PM

Updated Friday, Mar 7 at 5:20 PM

Ever since Eastside Catholic students began protesting Mark Zmuda's termination last December, their goal always aimed far outside Sammamish.

WATCH: Former vice principal suing Eastside Catholic

"Maybe even more than just theoretically, this case could end up before the United States Supreme Court," said employment attorney Jeffrey Needle.

Zmuda announced Thursday that he is suing Eastside Catholic and the Seattle Archdiocese for wrongful termination after he lawfully married his male partner.

The crux of Zmuda's argument, explained in documents he'll discuss at a news conference on Friday, is that he never served in a religious role.

"Job duties were purely administrative," Needle read. "Were wholly unrelated to any religious practice or activity."

If true, Needle says, a recent Washington Supreme Court ruling may work in Zmuda's favor.

Larry Ockletree, a security guard in Tacoma, sued Franciscan Health System after his termination, citing race and disability discrimination. FHS argued exemption due to religious non-profit status.

The February 2014 ruling favored Ockletree because of his job's non-religious role.

"The court said that so long as his employment duties did not involve any religious purpose, that the Washington law against discrimination applied," Needle explained.

However, in a motion to dismiss, ECS and the Archdiocese call Zmuda's role a religious one that required him to "serve the legitimate Roman Catholic religious value of providing a suitable Catholic education for children."

"If the church can't ultimately convince a judge and or a jury of that, then they lose," Needle said.

Needle offered another counter-example.

"Let's say there was a nun and she decided she wanted to become a priest. That would be gender discrimination in the real world," he said.  "But because they have a 1st Amendment right of religion, both of establishment and free exercise, the nun can't sue the church."

In Zmuda's case, however, his role as vice principal is not so clear, despite his employer's religious affiliation.

Needle believes the case will end up in an appeals court and may have statewide, if not national, ramifications for religious employers.