Court: Guard can sue religious hospital for firing

SEATTLE - Washington's Supreme Court says nonprofit religious institutions can be sued for job discrimination if the employee's position doesn't have to do with religion.

In a divided opinion Thursday, the court sided with a 59-year-old security guard at St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma who was fired after he suffered a stroke in 2010. Larry Ockletree lost most use of his left arm, and the hospital said he couldn't do his job anymore.

Ockletree sued, and a federal judge sent questions to Washington's Supreme Court asking about the constitutionality of the state's Law Against Discrimination. That law says religious nonprofits are exempt from job discrimination claims.

Four justices wanted to uphold the exemption, saying it was a reasonable way to ensure religious freedom. Four others voted to strike it down, saying it didn't make sense to give religious organizations a pass when discrimination has nothing to do with religious freedom.

The decision came down to Justice Charles Wiggins. He held that whether the law's exemption applies in any given case depends on whether an employee's job is related to religious practices.

Ockletree's lawsuit will proceed in federal court.