Gay Rights Activists Hail Washington Ruling
They see precedent in decision siding with fired lesbian
[SAN FRANCISCO, CA] - In a decision hailed by gay rights advocates, a Washington state appeals court said Thursday that the U.S. Constitution bars discrimination against lesbians and gay men working in the public sector.
While the decision is binding only for public employees in Washington, advocates hope it will help attorneys win workplace rights for lesbians and gays in other states. "The decision can be cited in courts outside of Washington to persuade those courts that this is the correct principle of law," said attorney Ken Choe, who handled the case for the American Civil Liberties Union.
The unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel was the latest chapter in a case that began in 1996, when health care worker Mary Jo Davis sued Pullman Memorial Hospital, a public hospital in eastern Washington, saying the hospital had fired her because she is a lesbian.
The appeals court said lesbians and gay men are protected from discrimination at work under the Constitution's equal-protection clause.
"That sounds quite simple, quite straightforward and, to a lot of people, obvious," said Matt Coles, director of the ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. "In fact, it is simple. It is straightforward. And in most parts of the country not thought to be obvious."
Coles said there are only 12 states, including California and New York, that specifically prohibit workplace discrimination against lesbians and gay men. There is no such law in Washington.
Pullman Hospital has long had a policy barring discrimination against lesbians and gay men, said attorney Michael McMahon, who represents the hospital.
"Pullman Hospital, which is located right by the campus of Washington State University, has always been ahead of the curve on these issues," he said. "It's a university community. It's forward thinking. We have all the correct bells and whistles in terms of employment policies."
McMahon said he understands why the ACLU is excited about the ruling, because the civil rights group would like to win constitutional protection for lesbians and gay men in every state. But he said the ruling is unlikely to inspire the Washington Legislature to pass such laws.
Davis, 37, worked as a sonographer in the hospital's radiology department for two years before she was fired. Davis' case will now be heard by a trial court, which will decide if she was fired because she is a lesbian or, as the hospital has alleged, because she was "disruptive" and violated hospital policy by copying and sharing patient records.
She said the hospital's chief radiologist constantly referred to her with anti-gay epithets, told colleagues she wasn't doing a good job, held her to higher standards than other employees, humiliated her on a regular basis and finally refused to speak to her or allow her to speak to him at work.
"When I complained, the hospital reduced my hours, so the chief radiologist wouldn't ever have to be around me at work," she said Thursday in a prepared statement. "Finally, I was fired."
Davis said she was stunned to learn that lesbians and gays were not protected from workplace discrimination under Washington state law. "Going through a lawsuit like this isn't easy," she said. "But what happened to me is wrong, and we can't just let it stand."