Homeless shelter seeks right to hire those faithful to mission
Ministry challenges Washington nondiscrimination law
When Mike Johnson parks and gets out of his car at Yakima Union Gospel Mission in Yakima, Wash., each day, the first people he meets are those huddled outside the building. Often five or six participants in the mission’s addiction recovery group wait in the outside seating area.
“I start my day by hugs with these folks whose parents didn’t know them, that beat them, and they’re just so full of joy that they’re safe and they’re free,” said Johnson. “And they’re learning about a God who loves them.”
When he opens the door to the building, he expects every employee he encounters to believe in the purpose of the mission—from Melody and Teresa, who help cook breakfast for residents, to Jason, who works with a recovery group, to maintenance workers and custodians. That means they share in and live out the mission’s belief in reaching those they serve with the gospel of Jesus Christ—whether through its homeless shelter, addiction-recovery programs, outreach efforts, meal services, or health clinics for the Yakima community.
That includes 160 employees. The 86-year-old mission serves three meals a day to the homeless (over 431,000 meals last year), offers a free medical clinic, and provides housing for men, women, and children to get them off the streets. A slate of recovery programs aim to help those they serve find jobs, manage money, overcome addictions, and reintegrate into society to live productive lives. At every turn, clients are introduced to the hope of the Gospel.
Johnson, who is CEO of the nonprofit, said the mission’s integrity is threatened by a 2021 Washington Supreme Court ruling limiting a religious exemption in the state’s nondiscrimination law to employees who fall under the ministerial exception. That means the state could require the mission to hire some non-ministerial employees, those who do not serve a vital religious function, who may not agree with the mission’s beliefs or standards of conduct—or else face significant penalties.
“What we’re really doing at the mission is living out Christian community with each other and then inviting our homeless clients to join us in what we’re already doing in living out our faith with each other,” Johnson explained. “And therefore, even if there was someone who had minimal client contact, they have an essential role in forming and maintaining the Christian community. That really is the change engine for our clients.”
He’s not waiting to find out what the state will do. In a complaint filed in federal district court Thursday, the mission asks the court to block the state from violating its First Amendment right to hire co-religionists. That protects the mission’s right to hire people who agree with the mission’s statement of faith and agree to live out its religious beliefs, including its beliefs and standards of conduct for marriage and sexuality.
Johnson’s concern is not merely speculative. He said the mission has already received applications from people who openly disagree with and are even hostile to its religious beliefs on marriage and sexuality. Johnson said the group has removed some positions or held off advertising others that state authorities might consider non-ministerial—that is, open to all—to avoid hiring people who disagree with the mission. But he admits this is only a temporary solution.
Yakima’s mission is not the first to attract the ire of the state. In March 2021, the Washington Supreme Court revived a claim made by a bisexual lawyer against Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission. It upheld application of the state’s law barring discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, even though the historic mission was acting on its long-held religious beliefs.
In a lopsided 8-1 ruling, the majority reasoned that attorneys in the mission’s legal clinic did not have titles as ministers nor training in religious matters and were not “expected to nurture their converts’ development in the Christian faith.” Last year, the Supreme Court declined to review the ruling. In a concurring opinion joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, Justice Samuel Alito agreed the case was not procedurally ready for review, but he was clear how he would rule should the case come up again.
“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,” wrote Alito. “Driving such organizations from the public square would not just infringe on their rights to freely exercise religion but would greatly impoverish our nation’s civic and religious life.”
Washington authorities also went after Christian florist Barronelle Stutzman, ultimately driving her out of business and into retirement after a multi-year battle to secure her right not to create floral arrangements for same-sex weddings. Christian therapist Brian Tingley continues to battle the state over its ban on him talking with minors who seek his help dealing with unwanted same-sex attraction or gender confusion. And evangelical Seattle Pacific University is fending off an investigation into the school’s requirement that employees not engage in sexual relationships outside marriage between one man and one woman, even as trustees defend a counter-suit by some students and faculty.
Alliance Defending Freedom attorney Jacob Reed, who represents the mission, said that while the lawsuit involves a particular Washington state law, it has national implications, as many states have similar nondiscrimination laws. “Every religious organization is now threatened with liability for … hiring people who agree with their religious beliefs,” he said. He added that rescue missions may be the most vulnerable because they often employ many people and are very visible.
“They’re out there on the frontlines doing the work,” Reed said. “We’re simply asking the federal court to recognize that they have a constitutional right to make sure everyone is on board and in agreement with what they are.”
Reed said there is hope for resolution. In November 2022, ADF attorneys settled a similar case for Wyoming Rescue Mission within two months of filing suit. A woman who claimed no faith contended she was denied a thrift shop position because she was not a Christian. Reed said both the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the state agreed not to pursue the mission and to pay its attorneys’ fees—a result that bodes well for the Yakima mission.
For Johnson, the lawsuit has added interviews with reporters or a local radio station to his workload. He’s ready to return to a normal day of raising the funds needed to support the mission’s work, leading devotionals for residents at lunchtime, and checking in with staff heading up the various ministry programs.
“I can do the administrative stuff, right, but what really gets me up in the morning are the people that we love and serve,” he said. “Love heals and love changes—nothing else does, really.”
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