The state of Wyoming and the federal government recently declared that a Christian rescue mission in Casper violated the law when it refused to hire a non-Christian for one of its positions in the ministry’s thrift store.
The bizarre ruling, if it became widely followed, would effectively destroy the rights of religious organizations everywhere to hire like-minded people who share the same values and religious beliefs, except for those few who a court might consider to be “ministers.”
Now the Wyoming Rescue Mission is fighting back, suing both the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services. The lawsuit seeks to vindicate the rescue mission’s constitutional and statutory rights to hire co-religionists.
In 2020, the rescue mission turned down an applicant for its thrift store associate position who openly admitted being a person of “no faith.”
The rejected applicant filed a complaint with the EEOC and the state of Wyoming, both of which investigated the rescue mission, and determined there was “reasonable cause” that the mission had violated Wyoming and federal employment laws.
Although the EEOC and the state of Wyoming chose not to sue the mission at the time, they reserved the right to do so. And the government’s legal position has cost the mission time and money to defend itself, while its future hiring practices are threatened with further legal sanctions.
The mission is represented by attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF).
“The Wyoming Rescue Mission is doing exceedingly important work to uplift the Casper community by providing free meals, shelter, recovery programs, job training, and hope. The mission’s hiring practices, including its ability to hire like-minded employees who subscribe to its faith, are essential to fulfilling its calling,” said ADF Senior Counsel Ryan Tucker, director of the ADF Center for Christian Ministries, in a press release.
“The First Amendment allows religious organizations the freedom to hire those who share their beliefs without being threatened. This mission simply wants that truth recognized.”
Federal employment law, known as Title VII, prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.
However, Title VII specifically recognizes the constitutional right that religious organizations have to religious autonomy by exempting them from the law’s restrictions on religious hiring:
“This subchapter shall not apply to […] a religious corporation, association, educational institution, or society with respect to the employment of individuals of a particular religion to perform work connected with the carrying on by such corporation, association, educational institution, or society of its activities.”
That provision is clear on its face and should apply to all of the mission’s employees. So how did the EEOC and the state of Wyoming reach a different conclusion?
The EEOC and the state of Wyoming reasoned that Title VII’s religious exemption (and Wyoming’s equivalent) applies only to “ministerial” employees of a religious organization, not to all of them. “Ministerial” employees, according to what the state of Wyoming told the mission, are employees who lead religious organizations, conduct worship services or important religious ceremonies or rituals, or who serve as a messenger or teacher of its faith.”
But that, according to ADF, is a serious misreading of Title VII and various court decisions interpreting the First Amendment’s religion clauses, and especially the related legal doctrine known as the “ministerial exception.”
On top of that, the lawsuit alleges that the thrift store position is indeed “ministerial”:
“The store/donation center associate position has distinctly religious job duties that requires it to be a Christian role model to the Mission recovery program attendees and the public; lead and engage in corporate worship, prayer, and Bible study; be a witness for Jesus to program attendees and the public; and spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ by encouraging guests, staff, volunteers, and customers to accept God’s gift of salvation and grow in their faith,” according to the rescue mission’s Complaint filed in a federal district court.
The lawsuit seeks a declaratory judgment that Wyoming and the EEOC have violated the rescue mission’s First Amendment rights. It also requests the court issue injunctions preventing the government agencies from taking any further adverse action against the mission.
The case is titled Wyoming Rescue Mission v. EEOC.
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