Discrimination occurs when a person, business, organization, or government entity treats you differently because of certain personal characteristics.  Examples include refusing to rent an apartment to someone, firing or refusing to hire a person, refusing to serve someone at a restaurant, or refusing to provide social services, due to a person’s characteristic such as gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, or disability.

Not all forms of discrimination are illegal, and not under all circumstances.  For example, a landlord who owns a large apartment building cannot refuse to rent to you just because you are a man or Asian or single or gay or disabled.  But a person who is looking for a roommate or to sublet a room in their house can legally specify that they will only rent to women, or to persons who keep Kosher, or only to Spanish-speakers, or any other personal preference.  Discrimination in hiring and employment based on certain characteristics is generally illegal.  But some anti-discrimination laws don’t apply to businesses with very few employees.

In Washington State, the primary law defining what constitutes illegal discrimination is the Washington Law Against Discrimination.  There are also other state and federal laws that prohibit discrimination in many circumstances, as well as constitutional protections under both the state and federal constitutions.  Many local governments have enacted civil rights protections at the county or city level.  Most tribal governments have their own civil rights laws which apply to tribal members and/or to activities happening on tribal land.  Native tribes, as sovereign nations, generally are not bound by state or local laws against discrimination.

Washington’s Law Against Discrimination protects against discrimination based on:

  • Race
  • National Origin
  • Creed
  • Sex
  • Sexual Orientation
  • Gender Identity
  • Pregnancy and Breastfeeding
  • Age (40+, employment only)
  • Veteran/Military Status
  • Marital Status.
  • Disability or perceived Disability (including discrimination based on HIV or Hep C status, and use of a service animal)

Most cases of illegal discrimination against an individual occur in the areas of housing, employment, and public accommodation (which included hotels, restaurants, stores, theaters, and other public spaces).  Illegal discrimination can also occur in broader contexts such as bias in school testing, voting rights, criminal prosecutions, or selective enforcement of laws.

It is important to remember that while discrimination can and does occur based on individuals’ personal biases or outright bigotry, a lot of discrimination cases occur because people don’t know the law and don’t realize they are violating anti-discrimination laws.  This is often the case involving service animals in public spaces which generally don’t permit animals, such as restaurants. Because of this, and because a lot of discriminatory behavior is based in ignorance or fear, many of the agencies at the state and local level which address these issues often try for informal settlement of the issues rather than going through a lawsuit.  These agencies have a great track record of resolving the issue in a way that brings both sides to the table and results in a better understanding of the laws and the underlying issues of discrimination.

For Pagans, dealing with discrimination can be an especially difficult challenge because many of us choose to not be “out of the broom closet” to co-workers or family members.  Many people may not regard Paganism as a genuine religious affiliation, and there’s always the risk of attracting unwanted attention if we speak up about any discrimination we experience or witness.  The agencies which work to resolve issues outside of a courtroom often follow a more discreet process, which can work well for many Pagan people.  Such an approach also provides the individual with more control over how the process moves forward, which is often not the case if a case goes to court.  If you have experienced or witnessed discrimination, it’s always a good idea to talk to a professional at one of these agencies to find out whether the discrimination is actually illegal, and what options can be pursued to address it.

The main state-wide agency enforcing the Law Against Discrimination is the Washington State Human Rights Commission.  When a discrimination complaint is filed with the Commission, its investigators gather information about the situation.  If the Commission finds that illegal discrimination has occurred, the objective is to obtain a solution that best eliminates unfair practices and prevents their reoccurrence.  This is most often achieved through negotiation, but the Commission can recommend a lawsuit if the discrimination is wide-spread of particularly outrageous.

The Commission has no jurisdiction over employers with fewer than 8 employees, Native American tribes, federal government, religious employers, or claims in which the last date of harm occurred more than 6 months prior to the filing date of the complaint (or more than 2 years prior in the case of a state employee whistle-blower retaliation claim).

The federal government also enforces anti-discrimination laws through several agencies including the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Department of Labor, and the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice.  Several non-profit agencies also operate state-wide to provide legal advice and assistance to people facing discrimination.

If you believe you are being discriminated against, try to document what is happening. Keep notes of the dates, times, and witnesses, words used, and actions or conduct you believe is discriminatory. Keep copies of any relevant letters, emails, voice mails, and texts.