Seattle Bans Caste Discrimination With First-of-Its-Kind Ordinance

Author: Michael Cardman, XpertHR Senior Legal Editor

March 7, 2023

Seattle soon will prohibit discrimination on the basis of an individual's caste.

Effective March 26, Ordinance 126767 adds caste to the list of protected classes under several sections of the city's municipal code, including its anti-discrimination law.

Caste is a complex concept with a long history. Although it is found primarily in South Asia and in Hindu cultures, the ordinance notes that caste systems also can be found in other religious and ethnic groups in all geographical regions, including within diaspora communities.

The ordinance defines caste as "a system of rigid social stratification characterized by hereditary status, endogamy, and social barriers sanctioned by custom, law, or religion." Endogamy is not defined in the ordinance, but Oxford Reference defines it as a "system in which an individual may only marry another person from within the same kin group, clan, or tribe."

Some attorneys have argued that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 already covers caste discrimination as a type of racial, religious and/or national-origin discrimination. Some civil rights groups have asked the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to recognize the "intertwined nature of caste and race" in its guidance.

However, others contend that prohibiting discrimination on the basis of caste is in itself a form of religious or national-origin discrimination. In a statement, the Hindu American Foundation said, "[T]he singling out of South Asians and addition of 'caste' to non-discrimination policy violates the very policies it now amends. The City of Seattle has voted to treat South Asians in a manner that no other ethnic or racial community is treated under the guise of non-discrimination. It has voted yes to discriminating against ethnic minorities, repeating the ugliness of nativists in the state nearly a century ago."

The ordinance appears to be the first of its kind in America. It remains to be seen whether similar legislation will be introduced in other states and/or cities.