Washington Law Threatens Rescue Mission's Freedom to Hire


Scott Blakeman

Washington Law Threatens Rescue Mission's Freedom to Hire

Would it make sense to hire a known alcoholic to run Alcoholics Anonymous support groups? Or what about if Planned Parenthood was forced to hire a prominent pro-life lobbyist to lead its advocacy efforts?  

The organizations mentioned above in these hypothetical scenarios wouldn't be interested in hiring employees who actively undermine their organization's efforts to accomplish their mission. That would be tantamount to sabotage.  

Unfortunately, the realm of hypotheticals ends in Yakima, Washington.  

That's where Yakima Union Gospel Mission filed a federal lawsuit against Washington state officials to protect its constitutional right to hire employees who share and live out the ministry's religious beliefs.

Compassion, Care, and Christlike Service to Society's Outcasts

Yakima Union Gospel Mission exists to provide Christ-centered rescue, recovery, and restoration to men, women, and children in need. The Mission serves everyone regardless of their situations, circumstances, beliefs, or identity. They've been operating since 1936, bringing hope to the hopeless by living out the Gospel. The Mission is serious about the work God called it to, and its very existence testifies to its faith, which it seeks to integrate through every person it serves and everything it does.  

For example, the Mission offers temporary and emergency shelter services for the homeless 365 days a year and provides a family shelter for families with minor children.  

Last fiscal year, the Mission provided a total of 30,167 nights of shelter to 881 different adults and 3,592 nights of shelter for children. The Mission's Good News Café gives out free meals three times a day to the public and shelter guests, serving 141,629 free meals to the hungry during that period. The Mission also has various programs that seek to transition the struggling from addiction-stricken and broken situations into healthy and productive lifestyles. And the Mission's flagship recovery program helps people recover from drug and alcohol addictions and homelessness by inviting them into a year-long, faith-based residential community. It's also worth noting that the Mission has a free health clinic to serve the public.

Continuity and the Coreligionist Principle

To further its religious purposes, the Mission only hires coreligionists: like-minded individuals who agree with and live out the Mission's Christian beliefs and practices. All employees (the Mission employs over 150 people) must adhere to certain Christian beliefs and behavior requirements—including abstaining from any sexual conduct outside of biblical marriage.  

An integral component of its beliefs center around the biblical view that God only creates biological men and women, and that marriage is between one man and one woman. It clearly declares these beliefs in its governing documents.

But as is the case in a growing number of legal clashes throughout the United States, issues surrounding sexual orientation and gender identity are testing the fortitude of fundamental religious freedom rights.  

What's the Deal with the Washington Law Against Discrimination?

The Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD) prohibits sexual orientation discrimination in employment in Washington, and state officials view the Mission's Christian behavior requirement on marriage and sexuality as unlawful sexual orientation discrimination.  

Interestingly, the newfangled definition is a recent invention. The WLAD used to protect the Mission by exempting religious nonprofit organizations from its provisions. The Washington legislature initially enacted the religious employer exemption because it recognized the risk of entanglements between the state and religion that could occur in enforcing WLAD against religious organizations.

However, a recent Washington Supreme Court decision gutted the religious employer exemption, reducing it to the First Amendment’s ministerial exception. While the ministerial exception is a great constitutional principle that upholds a church's or ministry's freedom to make employment decisions for ministers without government interference, the ministerial exception in the Mission's case fails to fully protect it because the Mission also employs positions that would be classified as “non-ministers." But because all employees further the Mission’s religious calling, it must be able to hire coreligionists, like-minded individuals who agree with and live out the Mission’s beliefs and practices, regardless of whether the position is a minister or not. Yet Washington officials are standing in the way of this commonsense and appropriate legal principle from guiding employment policy in the state.

Interfering with Ministry and Stifling Speech

Washington's actions inevitably created consequences that are hurting Yakima's community and an institution serving humbly to improve it. To avoid punishment and not shoulder increased liability, the Mission stopped using a popular job search website to post its open positions because it received multiple applications that showed open disagreement with the Mission’s beliefs. As a result, the Mission has less bandwidth to fulfill its role in Yakima's community. And it's the community's vulnerable who suffer as a result.  

The Mission also removed an IT technician position from its own web site and didn't post an operations assistant position because those positions now do not fall within the new, more narrowly defined ministerial exception under the WLAD.

What's happening to the Yakima Union Gospel Mission isn't right. Faith-based organizations should be able to make employment decisions based on their mission, needs, and sincerely held religious beliefs. We are proud to represent this worthy ministry defend its needed, Christ-centered, and compassionate work. And, if the case is successful, it could help correct and set a precedent for other ministries in the state who may soon find themselves embroiled in similar disputes.  

Freedom, Not Punishment

This case is straightforward: The First Amendment gives religious organizations the freedom to hire individuals who share and live out their religious beliefs without being punished or threatened by the government. The Mission shouldn't face substantial penalties under Washington state law for simply engaging in its constitutionally protected freedom to hire like-minded staff who share the Mission's calling to spread the Gospel and care for vulnerable individuals and families in the Yakima community.

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