O’Ban update to state religious freedom laws passes Senate

Washington will no longer deny certain public employees their constitutional right of freedom of association because of their religious beliefs if Senate Bill 5339 becomes law. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place, was passed Tuesday by the Senate on a 25-24 caucus-line vote.

Under current law, public employees who belong to a religious organization and have religious objections to joining a union may pay the equivalent of union dues to a charity.  SB 5339 would clarify that the right of religious objection also belongs to those outside organized religion but with individually held, sincere religious or spiritual beliefs.  It also changes the standard for invoking religious non-association to objections based on “bona fide personally held religious beliefs” rather than the “bona fide religious tenets or teachings of a church or religious body of which the employee is a member.”

“What this really does is update the law to reflect our times,” said O’Ban. “Employees who do not attend a denominational church or house of worship, or attend no house of worship at all, should not be denied their constitutional rights. Washington is famous for people being spiritual without necessarily belonging to an organized religion, and our First Amendment rights do not depend on what organizations we belong to.” 

Public employees invoking their First Amendment right of religious non-association must pay an amount of money equal to regular union dues and initiation fees to a nonreligious charitable organization mutually agreed upon by the employee and the union. If no agreement can be reached, the decision goes to the Public Employment Relations Commission.  SB 5339 would put the choice of charity solely in the hands of the employee.  However, the charity must be chosen from among those participating in the Washington State Combined Fund Drive.

“A state commission should not decide which charity someone should contribute to,” said O’Ban. “That decision belongs with the individuals invoking their constitutional rights. It is not up to me to approve or anyone else to decide for them. The freedom of every individual is important and I hope members in the House see that too.”