Wyoming shelter fights for faith-based hiring | WORLD
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Wyoming shelter fights for faith-based hiring

State, federal agencies cite job discrimination

iStock.com/Karl-Hendrik Tittel

Wyoming shelter fights for faith-based hiring

For 44 years, the Wyoming Rescue Mission has welcomed the hungry, hurting, and homeless to a shelter in Casper, about four hours north of Denver. A star-topped neon “Jesus Saves” sign and a rugged wooden cross by the door leave no doubt about its Christian identity.

But in 2020, that identity came under fire. The Wyoming Department of Workforce Services investigated the mission and sided with a woman who claimed the mission illegally denied her a thrift shop job.

After a 16-month tug-of-war, the rescue mission faced paying nearly $4,000 in back wages to someone it never employed. That settlement would have imposed extensive auditing and training burdens to ensure the Wyoming Rescue Mission didn’t “discriminate” again in the eyes of the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission and its Wyoming counterpart. Instead, the mission sued both agencies on Sept. 20.

Brad Hopkins, the mission’s executive director, said the government’s interference brought his employment efforts to a halt. Wyoming Rescue Mission doesn’t want to hire just anyone. It seeks earnest people of kindred faith.

“It has us in a bit of a stranglehold right now,” Hopkins said. “We see our assistance to the poor and needy in the state of Wyoming and serving the homeless to be the direct expression of our faith in Christ. And it’s just as important that our staff have that same belief and can share that hope with the community and those in need.”

With 60 employees and 800 volunteers, Wyoming Rescue Mission is a significant economic force in Casper, the state’s second-largest city with nearly 60,000 residents. In 2021, the mission provided over 60,000 free meals and furnished over 41,000 bed nights for men, women, and children in need. It also distributed over 1,200 vouchers for free clothing and essentials at two Rescued Treasures shops, mission stores that also serve the paying public.

The case began when a woman sought a Rescued Treasures job in October 2020. After she expressed no faith, church affiliation, or spiritual reference in a job interview, the mission moved to other candidates. She filed a complaint with the EEOC and Wyoming’s workforce agency, which found the mission discriminated against her for being a “non-Christian.”

At the heart of the case are Wyoming’s Fair Employment Practices Act of 1965 and a federal law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The government agencies say the mission may claim a ministerial exception to those laws when hiring a religious or worship leader but not a store associate.

Ryan Tucker, an Alliance Defending Freedom attorney, said that argument misses a crucial point: Rescued Treasures workers disciple people who are completing Christ-centered addiction recovery programs. The stores directly fund religious programs, and every employee signs a statement of faith to model Christ, to share the gospel, and to lead and participate in Bible study, prayer, and devotions.

“We’re seeing increasing threats across the United States [against] religious organizations like the Wyoming Rescue Mission to be able to prefer the hiring of individuals that believe the way they do,” Tucker said.

In March, the Supreme Court deemed it premature to hear a Washington state case involving a Christian mission’s refusal to consider a bisexual job candidate. However, Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, wrote that the court may soon decide if the First Amendment guarantees a broad right for religious organizations to hire like-minded believers without state or judicial interference.

The Wyoming Rescue Mission claims the state workforce agency declined to post its faith-based jobs beginning in 2019, when the agency also asserted the mission could neither fire nor refuse to hire anyone disagreeing with its religious beliefs. Ty Stockton, the agency’s chief deputy administrator, cited the lawsuit in declining to comment on those claims Monday.

Hopkins hopes the suit will redress what he sees as government harassment of his mission’s religious freedom. “That’s really what it is,” he said. “I’m trying to say it more positively, but we’re really trying to secure that freedom that we [already] have.”

Gary Perilloux

Gary is a native of Hammond, La., and an alumnus of Southeastern Louisiana University and Louisiana State University. Over three decades, he worked as an editor and reporter in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, and as communications director for Louisiana Economic Development. A 2022 graduate of World Journalism Institute, he and his wife reside in Baton Rouge, La.


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