September 19, 2021

Supreme Court petitioned to overturn ruling against religious employers

A Christian organization serving Seattle’s homeless population is appealing to the United States Supreme Court to overturn a state supreme court ruling that all but eliminates its right to hire only those who share in its beliefs and religious faith, as Fox News reports.

The controversy began when Union Gospel Mission (UGM) did not offer employment to an applicant for a staff attorney opening with the organization after he revealed that he was bisexual and involved in a romantic relationship with another man, a scenario in conflict with the group’s stated lifestyle requirements for its staff.

In response, the aforementioned applicant, Matthew Woods, filed suit against UGM alleging unlawful discrimination, and the Washington Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the nonprofit group’s actions constituted a violation of a state statute known as the Washington Law Against Discrimination.

Now, however, the UGM – joined by a number of high-profile Christian service groups, one-third of state attorneys general, and even a Muslim organization – is seeking a reversal from the nation’s high court, arguing that the Washington law at issue has exempted religious nonprofits since its inception, a proposition that was reaffirmed in 2006, according to Just The News.

A brief filed in case by a group of Republican lawmakers in the state asserted that the Washington Supreme Court displayed “shocking antireligious animus” and left similarly-situated groups “without legal protection from intrusive and potentially ruinous employment-related enforcement actions and lawsuits.”

Referring to the state high court’s finding that the exceptions to the Washington anti-discrimination law historically afforded to religious groups were rightly limited to “ministerial” employees only, the brief went on to state that UGM and other organizations would suffer “an actual chilling effect” if forced to predict “which of their activities with Washington State Human Rights commission or a secular court will consider religious.”

A brief filed by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association argues that a long line of precedents has made plain that “civil courts are not equipped to second-guess a religious organization’s determination of whether a given employee or applicant is a coreligionists” without placing the First Amendment rights of said group in real jeopardy, as Just The News noted.

Perhaps an unexpected ally in UGM’s fight, the Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team said in a brief of its own that Washington’s holding “will have especially deleterious effects on adherents of minority religious faiths” working within service groups, because Jews and Muslims “often engage in activities that, in Christian thought, may not appear to be religiously significant” but are in fact “deeply connected” to their faith missions.

Citing a 2017 Defense Department determination that the United States encompasses no fewer than 221 recognized religious, the group asserted that “it would be impossible for any judge to understand the central tenets, much less the scope of activities of all those religious groups” with regard to assessing which of their functions are “ministerial” in nature, but only time will tell whether those on the bench at the nation’s high court will agree.

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