Olympia, Wash., Mar 9, 2021 / 18:01 pm
American conflicts over religious freedom continue, as the Washington Supreme Court has reversed a ruling that blocked a bisexual lawyer's discrimination lawsuit against a Christian nonprofit that serves the homeless. The organization had declined to offer him a job because he was in a same-sex relationship and rejected its Christian code of conduct.
Matt Woods filed a lawsuit against Seattle's Union Gospel Mission in 2017 after it declined to hire him as an attorney for its free legal aid clinic after he said he was in a same-sex relationship.
King County Superior Court Judge Karen Donohue had dismissed the lawsuit on the grounds that the employer was exempt from the state's anti-discrimination law as a nonprofit religious employer, The Associated Press reports. However, the Washington Supreme Court on March 4 overturned that decision and returned it to a lower court for trial, saying there is a question over the facts of the case.
While the U.S. Supreme Court has a "ministerial exception" for many religious non-profits' employee policies, the state Supreme Court said a trial court must answer the "open question" of whether a staff attorney for the non-profit qualifies as a minister.
Seattle's Union Gospel Mission dates to 1932, when it launched to help victims of economic hardship during the Great Depression. It self-describes as "a non-profit Christian ministry" whose work is based "on the teaching of Jesus Christ." Its 2019 annual report said in the previous year it had provided over 155,000 shelter nights, over 924,000 meals, and 6,000 free legal consultation hours while helping 428 people leave the streets.
In December 2018, attorneys for the Christian non-profit said that the record showed that Woods "disagrees with the mission's sincerely held religious beliefs." Woods had in prior filings accused the mission of holding "anti-gay beliefs" and described them as "invidious."
The mission "requires all of its employees to express its religious beliefs and believes that publicly rejecting traditional Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality is tantamount to rejecting that the Bible is the infallible, inspired, authoritative word of God."
Woods' rejection of these beliefs would have effects on the mission's ability to express its religious purpose, they said. The attorneys argued that Woods' lawsuit in effect asks the court to rewrite existing precedent that strongly protects religious groups and then hold "a trial on how the Mission's purpose to share the gospel of Jesus Christ is carried out in its work serving the poor and vulnerable." They argued that Woods seeks "an invasive inquiry into the mission's religious practices."
Woods had signed the charity's statement of faith when he began volunteering, the Supreme Court's March 4 ruling reported. When he inquired about the staff attorney position in October 2016, and said he was in a same-sex relationship, Seattle's Union Gospel Mission said that this was contrary to biblical teaching.
"Woods challenged this interpretation and applied for the position," though the legal services director said there "would be no change to its policy," the court ruling said.
According to the court, Woods has two "fundamental rights" in the case: "the right to an individual's sexual orientation and the right to marry." Seattle's Union Gospel Mission also has "the right to exercise its religious beliefs, and central to this freedom is the messenger of those beliefs."
News reports like the Associated Press portrayed the mission policy as "anti-LGBTQ."
Woods welcomed the ruling.
"To get the affirmation from the court that religious organizations don't have a right to blanket discriminate against LGBTQ people for who they are no matter what the job is a big relief," he said, according to the Associated Press. "Especially for members of my community that are so much more likely to experience discrimination in the workplace because of their race or gender identity."
His case had the assistance of the LGBT advocacy group the QLaw Foundation of Washington, whose executive director Denise Diskin served as his attorney. Legal Voice and Seattle Employment Law Partners served as co-counsels.
In a March 4 statement, the QLaw Foundation contended the decision meant that a hiring policy which bars employees from engaging in homosexual behavior or "any activity that would have an appearance of evil" would no longer apply to all employees of religious institutions.
"This lawsuit reflects the urgency of challenging religious exemptions and other justifications that would open the door to unconstrained discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community, targeting their dignity while ignoring their humanity," the foundation said.
Attorneys with the legal group Alliance Defending Freedom in 2019 filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Citygate Network, a group of some 300 Christian organizations involved in crisis shelters, gospel rescue missions and service centers for the destitute, the hungry, the homeless, addicts, and abuse victims.
The brief said that religious organizations may assert "a good faith, religiously-motivated basis for making an employment decision" when an employee or prospective employee makes an accusation of non-religious discrimination. Allowing such discrimination cases would mean "judicial entanglement into questions of whether certain beliefs are integral to the organization's mission."
"This would violate the Constitution and jeopardize the organization's ability to define its own religious beliefs and create and maintain a community of believers aligned with the organization's religious beliefs," said the brief.
"Woods took the position that the Mission's Christian beliefs were wrong and should change. And his focus in this litigation has been to put the Mission's interpretation of the Bible on trial," the amicus brief said. It said the mission's refusal to hire him was based on its "disagreement with and refusal to abide by the Mission's religious beliefs and practices."
On its website, the mission says its goal is "to bring the love of Jesus and hope for a new life to our homeless neighbors."
"Our vision is to see every homeless neighbor beloved, redeemed, restored." It continued, stating that it serves "those in greatest need regardless of their religious beliefs, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity." Its employment section invites applications from those who "are a Christian and agree with our statement of faith."
A similar case is under litigation in Massachusetts, where the state Supreme Court has ruled that Gordon College, a non-denominational school, can't cite a ministerial exemption to protect itself from an anti-discrimination lawsuit from a professor who claims that she was denied tenure for her LGBT advocacy and her opposition to policies and practices she considers discriminatory.
Religious freedom challenges have increased in recent decades as legal recognition of same-sex unions and protections for self-identified LGBT people come into conflict with Christians and others who cannot affirm same-sex relationships. Wedding industry professionals have faced anti-discrimination claims and Catholic adoption agencies have been shut down for failure to comply with new laws and rules.
The proposed federal Equality Act would give significant protections to sexual orientation and gender identity while also removing protections secured by the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The legislation has passed the U.S. House of Representatives and is under consideration in the U.S. Senate.