Nondiscrimination laws threaten faith-based rescue missions
Religious Liberty | Washington appeals court narrows religious exemption
by Steve West
Posted 3/23/21, 03:39 pm
The Washington state Supreme Court earlier this month revived a bisexual lawyer’s 2017 lawsuit against Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission. Plaintiff Matthew Woods claims the mission illegally discriminated against him when it declined to hire him for a staff attorney position after he disclosed he was in a same-sex relationship. In a decision that could reverberate across the country, the justices voted 8-1 to uphold a provision of the state’s law barring discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity even though the Seattle Union Gospel Mission was acting on its religious beliefs.
While the nondiscrimination law in Washington offers religious nonprofits like the mission an exemption, it only applies when dealing with employees who qualify as ministers under the federal “ministerial exception”—a doctrine barring courts from interfering in religious institutions’ internal matters. The rescue mission argued it expected all employees to act as evangelists of the Christian faith, but the majority’s opinion suggested that is not enough to make someone a minister. The court noted staff attorneys did not have titles as ministers nor training in religious matters and were not “expected to nurture their converts’ development in the Christian faith.”
In August 2020’s Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, the Supreme Court ruled courts should not second-guess religious schools’ hiring decisions for teachers who perform vital religious duties. But the decision’s reach remains unclear. The Massachusetts Supreme Court adopted a narrower view earlier this month, finding that a Gordon College social work professor and LGBT advocate who was denied tenure did not count as a minister at the evangelical school.
Religious organizations have cited the ministerial exception to justify employment decisions based on their faith, but they may not be able to find shelter there much longer—particularly in regards to applicants’ and employees’ views on sexuality. “Religious institutions making such a choice should be forewarned that today’s decision bars redefining every aspect of work life as ‘ministerial,’” Washington state Justice Mary Yu wrote in a concurring opinion in the Seattle Union Gospel Mission case.
Washington’s nondiscrimination law closely resembles the Equality Act passed in the U.S. House in February. The Washington court’s tight parameters do not bode well for religious groups under the Equality Act, should a version of the bill pass in the U.S. Senate and become law. The case could affect interpretation of other states’ nondiscrimination laws, as well.
Tom Laymon, president of The Gospel Rescue Mission Fellowship, said the organization was founded in 2018 out of a desire to take a strong stand on a Biblical understanding of sexuality and marriage. “When it comes to the issue of gay marriage and whether you hire or house, it comes down to a key theological issue,” he said. “Do you accept the Scriptures as authority on this point?”
Another umbrella organization for rescue missions, Citygate Network, filed a 2019 brief in support of Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission arguing for the group’s right to make employment decisions based on religion, even for nonministerial employees. Citygate President John Ashmen said the organization requires its members to affirm a Biblical understanding of sexuality and marriage.
A faith-based women’s shelter in Anchorage, Alaska, confronted a similar question. The city charged Downtown Hope Center with violating a local nondiscrimination ordinance for declining to allow an inebriated man who identified as female to sleep in the shelter next to abused and homeless women. The city ultimately relented and signed a consent decree ending the case, but only after a federal judge barred it from applying the ordinance.
Editor’s note: WORLD has updated this report since its initial posting.
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Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @slntplanet.