An important case involving the freedom of religious organizations to hire like-minded believers has made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. It involves a shocking decision from the Washington State Supreme Court that struck down its own legislature’s law protecting religious hiring, forcing a Christian ministry – and, by implication, all other churches and ministries in the state – to hire applicants for non-ministerial roles who reject the organization’s statement of faith and code of conduct.
The case has national implications for the scope of the First Amendment and the rights of religious organizations if the high court decides to hear it.
Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission (Mission) is a nonprofit that exists to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. From humble beginnings almost 90 years ago, the Mission now staffs over 20 ministries that provide food, shelter, addiction-recovery, job placement and legal services to Seattle’s homeless and others in need.
One of those ministries is Open Door Legal Services, a legal-aid clinic where staff attorneys and volunteers help resolve warrants, child support orders, debt collection, and other issues impacting the Mission’s homeless neighbors. Like all employees, staff attorneys talk about their faith, pray with clients, and tell them about Jesus.
In 2016, a notice for a staff attorney position was sent around to friends and volunteers of the Mission, including Matthew Woods, a former summer intern and volunteer. The notice included religious criteria for the position such as: agreement with the Mission’s statement of faith, mission and vision statement and core values; an active church/prayer life; readiness to practice law in a manner that honors and glorifies God; and eagerness to share the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Woods applied for the position and disclosed that he was in a same-sex relationship. When he was told that would be an obstacle to employment, Woods applied anyway to “protest” the Mission’s religious beliefs and lifestyle requirements. Woods’ cover letter even asked the Mission to “change” its religious practices.
Woods’ application was rejected, and he sued the Mission for violating the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD), which includes sexual orientation as a protected category. The Mission defended its action by pointing to WLAD’s religious hiring exemption that allows religious organizations to hire people of like faith, aka coreligionists.
The first court to hear the case ruled in the Mission’s favor, and Woods appealed to the state’s supreme court. In a 9-0 opinion, the justices reversed the lower court and ruled that the state’s religious freedom hiring exemption was unconstitutional in the case of the Mission’s rejection of Woods’ application.
Why? The justices ruled that they must “balance” the Mission’s rights with the rights of Woods to be free from discrimination based on sexual orientation. Two of those justices disparaged the Mission’s First Amendment rights as a “license to discriminate.”
The Mission, with the help of attorneys from Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), has now filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court asking the justices to hear the case and vindicate its First Amendment rights.
The Daily Citizen spoke with ADF Senior Counsel Jake Warner about this case. I asked him why it’s so important for the Supreme Court to take this case.
“The Washington Supreme Court got it wrong,” Warner told me. “They said that government has the power to punish religious organizations unless they hire those who don’t share their beliefs.
“In this particular case, consider the effect. Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission provides an incredible ministry to the city of Seattle. They serve the homeless by providing shelter, food, addiction recovery and all kinds of things. As a result of this decision, they can be punished for not employing someone within their ranks that disagrees with their mission.”
“It essentially undermines the whole mission of the Seattle Union Gospel Mission.”
Warner also sees parallels between this case and Jack Phillips, the Christian baker who declined to use his artistic talents to create a cake celebrating a same-sex wedding.
“Certainly, both cases involve religious freedom, and what is the permissible scope of government intervention or interference with the religious decisions of religious individuals or organizations. Here, we have the government trying to interfere with a religious organization’s mission. They want to serve the homeless of Seattle and present the gospel of Jesus Christ, but the Washington Supreme Court tried to punish them for doing both.”
We won’t know for a few months whether the Supreme Court will decide to hear this case. We’ll bring you any updates as they occur.
The case is Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission v Woods.
Photo from ugm.org.