A Christian mission in Seattle is appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court after the Washington Supreme Court ruled it doesn’t have the right to refuse to hire someone who disagrees with its beliefs.
“Churches and religious organizations have the First Amendment right to hire those who share their beliefs without being punished by the government,” said John Bursch, a former Michigan solicitor general who is now senior counsel and vice president of appellate advocacy with the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a public interest law firm that’s representing the mission.
“Courts have consistently recognized that a religious organization’s purpose will be undermined if the government forces it to hire those who do not subscribe to the group’s beliefs,” Bursch said in a statement.
The case is Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission v. Woods, court file 21-144. The appeal was docketed by the Supreme Court on Aug. 3.
Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission is a nonprofit that exists to preach the Christian gospel. Its employees must share and live out the mission’s beliefs by meeting the needs of the homeless and evangelizing to them, according to the group’s petition filed with the Supreme Court.
One of the mission’s ministries is Open Door Legal Services, a legal clinic that assists those in the mission’s recovery programs and other vulnerable community members. The respondent, Matthew S. Woods, applied for an Open Door position “with the stated intent of changing the Mission’s religious beliefs and without satisfying the prerequisites of regular church attendance, a pastor’s recommendation, and an explanation of his relationship with Jesus.”
The mission describes itself in the petition as “a nonprofit ministry that loves and cares for its homeless neighbors throughout greater Seattle. From a borrowed soup kettle used to care for those suffering from the Great Depression in 1932, the Mission has grown to serve and love over a thousand homeless individuals each day.”
“The Mission is about far more than providing for material needs. Its primary purpose is to bring the love of Jesus Christ and hope for a new life to those who most need it. The Mission seeks nothing less than to see every homeless neighbor loved, redeemed, and restored by meeting urgent physical needs while building relationships and offering faith. This approach is spectacularly successful. Two years after program completion, 70 percent of Mission clients are working or going to school full time. The Mission understands that success to be rooted in its evangelism, a success that would quickly end if employees undermined the organization’s religious convictions.”
When he wasn’t hired, Woods sued. A state trial court, the Superior Court of King County, ruled for the mission, noting that it’s exempt from state non-discrimination law, but the Washington Supreme Court held March 4 that exemption violated the state constitution.
ADF argues in a statement that the state supreme court was wrong.
As a result of the ruling, “Washington law now requires houses of worship and other religious nonprofits to employ those who contradict the beliefs they were created to foster unless a position qualifies for the Washington Supreme Court’s narrow interpretation of a ministerial exception. The decision threatens to undermine religious nonprofits like the Mission that are organized around and designed to promote a specific, shared set of religious beliefs.”
The petition states that the U.S. Constitution’s “coreligionist exemption—recognized by the federal government and six circuits but not the Washington Supreme Court—allows religious organizations to condition employment on adherence to religious tenets so that religious groups can maintain self-identifying communities of likeminded believers,” the petition states. “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.”
Unless the Supreme Court “intervenes, anyone will be able to demand a job while contradicting a religious organization’s core beliefs, and faith-based nonprofits will lose their autonomy to freely associate without state interference.”
Bursch told The Epoch Times by email that the Supreme Court could consider the petition as early as October but more likely will take it up in early November.