Christian Seattle homeless mission turns to Supreme Court after ruling strips away employment discretion

While homelessness plagues the city of , one Christian group that looks to help those in need is fighting for the ability to hire those who share its faith and message.

Seattle’s Union Gospel Homeless Mission declined to hire an applicant for a staff attorney position who was bisexual and in a relationship with a man – going against the mission’s lifestyle requirements. It is now turning to the U.S. Supreme Court after the Washington Supreme Court ruled that it violated Washington’s Law Against Discrimination (WLAD), claiming the mission is protected by the law’s religious exemption.

“Even though Washington’s Title VII analogue expressly excludes non-profit religious organizations from its definition of ‘employer’ and has done so since the law was passed over 50 years ago, the court held the statutory exemption unconstitutional as applied to a nonprofit that seeks to hire coreligionists—effectively rewriting the law,” the mission argued in a petition to Supreme Court filed earlier this month.

The Washington Supreme Court’s ruling had narrowed the applicability of the exception for religious nonprofits to a “ministerial exemption,” ruling that this does not apply to attorneys. As a result, the mission would not be legally allowed to discriminate against someone for being in a homosexual relationship (the mission also prohibits employees from having premarital sex or engaging in extramarital affairs). The mission argued that it is important even for attorneys who work for it to adhere to and represent its religious message.

“Staff attorneys are the primary contact and form ongoing relationships with Mission clients, collaborating with Mission caseworkers,” the petition said. “Like all employees, staff attorneys talk about their faith, often pray with clients, and tell them about Jesus. … They also participate in regular Mission worship services, prayer meetings, staff meetings (including prayer and devotionals), trainings, and other events.”

Meanwhile, the mission claims that the applicant, Matthew Woods, only applied in protest after being told of the lifestyle requirement, asking the mission in his cover letter to “change” its practices. Woods said in his application that he was not active in any local church and did not, as the mission required, provide the information for a pastor. 

Woods had volunteered for the mission while in law school and signed its statement of faith at the time. When he inquired about the staff attorney position, he disclosed his same-sex relationship and was told that it was a problem. Woods claims that legal work is “wholly unrelated to [the mission’s] religious practices or activities” and that the mission is therefore illegally discriminating against him due to his sexual orientation.

The mission argues that requiring it to hire someone who does not share its faith hinders its exercise of religion by taking away its ability to have a consistent ideology.

“The exemption is crucial for free exercise to thrive; after all, a religious nonprofit’s purpose will be undermined if it is forced to hire those who subvert the group’s religious beliefs,” it said.

Without the freedom to hire exclusively from its religion, the mission argues it would no longer be able to serve its stated purpose. 

“For Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission—which is first and foremost a ‘gospel’ mission—the Washington Supreme Court’s rejection of the coreligionist doctrine is an existential threat,” it claimed. “If the Mission cannot hire coreligionists, it must make the untenable choice of disavowing its faith or ending its evangelization of its homeless neighbors.”

As of May, Seattle’s homeless population was estimated at roughly 12,000 people. 

The issue of religious organizations’ ministerial exemption from discrimination lawsuits was at the center of two cases the Supreme Court heard last year. The decision, which covered both cases, broadened the exemption to cover not just clergy members but also other employees who serve religious functions, like teachers at religious schools.

The Supreme Court specifically did not define which jobs were covered by the exception, stating that “what an employee does” matters more than their title.

Fox News’ Dan Springer contributed to this report.

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