Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission filed a petition Monday asking the U.S. Supreme Court to decide a case in which the Washington Supreme Court ruled in favor of a bisexual lawyer who sued the mission over its anti-LGBTQ hiring policy.
Attorney Matt Woods sued Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission in 2017 when the nonprofit refused to hire him to its free legal aid clinic after he disclosed he was in a same-sex relationship. The mission, one of the largest homeless services nonprofits in the Seattle area, argued that it was exempt from the state’s anti-discrimination law as a religious employer, and a King County Superior Court judge agreed, dismissing Woods’ lawsuit.
The city of Seattle does not currently contract with Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission for its homelessness services.
In March, the Washington Supreme Court overturned the King County decision, kicking Woods’ case back to the lower court and questioning whether the state’s religious employer exemption applied to the position of staff attorney at a legal aid clinic within a religious organization. Monday’s petition argues that this ruling showed hostility to the mission’s religious beliefs.
“Churches and religious organizations have the First Amendment right to hire those who share their beliefs without being punished by the government,” said Alliance Defending Freedom senior counsel John Bursch, one of the attorneys representing the mission, in a news release. “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.”
The petition for Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission argues that its success in providing homeless services is predicated on its evangelism, “a success that would quickly end if employees undermined the organization’s religious convictions.”
Lawyers for Woods made the opposite case – that the type of services provided at a legal aid clinic, which helps homeless clients resolve issues like old warrants, immigration problems and getting their I.D., weren’t covered by the state’s exemption for religious employers.
“I am as sad today as I was the day the Gospel Mission told me I could not work for them because I am bisexual, after spending so many years as a volunteer,” Woods said in an emailed statement. “I believe every person should have equal opportunity to follow their calling and serve their community regardless of whom they love or how they express their gender identity, and that’s what this case has always been about for me.”
Denise Diskin, executive director of the QLaw Foundation of Washington and an attorney for Woods, said she was not surprised, but dismayed, by the mission’s choice to appeal to the Supreme Court. Woods is a Christian too, she said, and signed the organization’s statement of faith.
“[This case is] not just about the right of LGBTQ people to be treated fairly in employment, but it is also about the right of Washington’s unhoused people, Washington’s vulnerable populations, poor people to be served by members of their own communities,” Diskin said. “And when we have religious organizations that are performing social services work and fulfilling a high percentage of that sector, it effectively erases the experience of poor and unhoused LGBTQ people.”
Religious nonprofits make up a significant portion of service providers in the homelessness sector, not just in Seattle, but nationwide. A National Alliance to End Homelessness analysis estimated that in 2016, religious organizations provided 41% of the country’s emergency shelter beds for single adults.
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