The U.S. Supreme Court refused on March 21 to hear an appeal from a Christian mission that argued it can’t be forced to hire someone who disagrees with its beliefs, although two conservative justices left open the possibility of revisiting the case, which is still in progress before a lower court.
The case is Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission v. Woods, court file 21-144.
The U.S. Supreme Court didn’t provide reasons why it was rejecting the case, but Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, indicated in a statement (pdf) that the court may accept the case when some of the outstanding legal issues have been resolved.
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 court.
A state trial court ruled for the Mission, recognizing it as exempt from a state nondiscrimination law. The Washington Supreme Court disagreed, determining that the exemption violated the state constitution, and allowed the case to go forward.
In 2016, respondent Matthew S. Woods, a former summer intern and Mission volunteer, applied for a staff attorney position with its legal aid clinic, “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 petition states.
According to Alito’s summary of the facts, Woods informed the clinic that he was bisexual and in a same-sex relationship. The clinic’s director told Woods he wasn’t “able to apply,” and suggested he apply to a secular legal aid clinic. Unsatisfied, Woods applied for the Mission position to “protest” its employment policy. In his cover letter, he said the Mission should “change” its religious practices. Woods was denied the job, and he sued, claiming the Mission violated state law, which forbids discrimination against sexual orientation in employment decisions.
The Washington Supreme Court found a “material question of fact remains, concerning whether the [Mission] staff attorneys qualify as ministers” under the First Amendment, and remanded the case for “the trial court to determine whether staff attorneys can qualify as ministers.”
Alito wrote that the Washington Supreme Court’s decision “may warrant our review in the future, but threshold issues would make it difficult for us to review this case in this posture.”
“The state court,” the justice continued, “did not address whether applying state employment law to require the Mission to hire someone who is not a co-religionist would infringe the First Amendment.”
But Alito stressed the importance of government not undermining religion.
“If States could compel religious organizations to hire employees who fundamentally disagree with them, many religious non-profits would be extinguished from participation in public life—perhaps by those who disagree with their theological views most vigorously,” the justice wrote.
The Washington Supreme Court’s decision “to narrowly construe” the religious exemption in state law “to avoid conflict with the Washington Constitution may … have created a conflict with the Federal Constitution.”
One of Woods’s attorneys, Sara Amies of Seattle Employment Law Partners PLLC, welcomed the new ruling.
“Obviously, we’re happy that we are still free to ask questions about freedom, even in this court,” Amies told The Epoch Times in an interview.
“We won on the principle that the court has to look at the specific circumstances of the employee’s duties and responsibilities, and whether or not he is in the role of transmitting the Mission’s homophobic message.”
Amies said it has been repeatedly misreported that her client applied for the Mission job on his own initiative.
“He was a volunteer there for many years,” she said. “They loved him. He found the work to be very spiritually and professionally fulfilling. They asked him to apply for an open staff attorney position.”
Woods informed the Mission he was “in a relationship with a man and might have a family someday, and they said: ‘We’re sorry, you cannot apply,’” Amies said. “He had never, in the years that he volunteered there, come across any anti-gay policies.”
Woods is “a Christian of devout faith,” she said. When he started volunteering at the Mission in 2011, “he signed their statement of faith, which does not reference sexual orientation or marriage in any way.”
Woods “performed secular duties, including advising and representing clients on divorce and child support, and immigration and other issues that are common for people living in poverty.”
Although state and federal law protects religious employers, “for people like janitors and kitchen workers and dental hygienists and lawyers, those are secular jobs,” she said.
“We are happy that the court has left the Washington state Supreme Court’s ruling undisturbed, because it affirms the rights of all people to work even for religious employers.”
The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a public interest law firm representing the Mission, found a silver lining in the ruling.
“Churches and religious organizations have the First Amendment right to hire those who share their beliefs without being punished by the government,” John Bursch, a former Michigan solicitor general who is now senior counsel and vice president of appellate advocacy at ADF, told The Epoch Times in an emailed statement.
“That’s why, even though the Supreme Court decided not to take this case yet, we are pleased to see the statement from some of the justices on the court saying that the ‘Washington Supreme Court’s decision may warrant our review in the future’ once the case reaches a later stage of litigation.
“Courts have consistently recognized that a religious organization’s purpose will be undermined if the government forces it to hire those who do not share and live out the group’s beliefs.”