More than two years after a King County Superior Court judge dismissed a bisexual attorney’s lawsuit against Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission over its anti-LGBTQ hiring policy, the Washington Supreme Court has reversed the earlier ruling and ordered that the case go back to the lower court.
In 2017, attorney Matt Woods sued the mission, one of the largest homeless shelter and service organizations in the Seattle area, when the nonprofit refused to hire him to its free legal aid clinic after he disclosed he was in a same-sex relationship.
King County Superior Court Judge Karen Donohue dismissed Woods’ suit, agreeing with the mission that, as a religious nonprofit employer, it is exempt from the state’s anti-discrimination law.
The Washington Supreme Court’s decision could impact who makes up the workforce behind homelessness services in Washington state, many of which are carried out by religious nonprofits. The court’s ruling doesn’t strike down the religious employer exemption, but questions whether that exemption applies to a staff attorney at a legal aid clinic — a decision that could potentially open the door to more LGBTQ staffers working in social services at religious nonprofits.
Woods said he was relieved following the Supreme Court’s ruling Thursday.
“To get the affirmation from the court that religious organizations don’t have a right to blanket discriminate against LGBTQ people for who they are no matter what the job is a big relief,” Woods said. “Especially for members of my community that are so much more likely to experience discrimination in the workplace because of their race or gender identity.”
The mission did not immediately provide a comment on the ruling.
Local religious organizations have been undergoing a reckoning in recent years, as same-sex marriage has gained acceptance from the general public and congregation members or staff come out as LGBTQ. Jobs or membership in the organizations are often risked as a result.
In 2014, World Vision, a Federal Way-based, Christian development agency, said it would allow same-sex couples on staff before a backlash pushed the organization to reverse its decision two days later. Four years later, the board president of World Concern, a Christian development agency headquartered in Seattle, was told he would not be invited to serve another term on the board of World Concern or its parent organization, CRISTA Ministries, after he came out as gay.
Woods said his Christian beliefs motivated his choice to work as an attorney serving low-income people. In the original case, he said the mission’s decision violated his rights under the state’s anti-discrimination law, and that the position he applied for had nothing to do with the organization’s religious activities.
The mission argued that staff attorneys at its legal aid clinic, which provides free legal services to help homeless people deal with everything from getting a state I.D. to court fines, were also ministers there to preach the gospel. Religious organizations are exempt from Washington’s anti-discrimination law.
The year before Woods filed his lawsuit, the city of Seattle contracted with the mission to do outreach to help clear The Jungle, the stretch of Interstate 5 greenbelt that has long held homeless encampments.
Several Christian and Jewish organizations and schools filed briefs in support of the mission, with some arguing that measuring a job’s religiosity would be unconstitutional. LGBTQ rights organizations and the American Civil Liberties Union supported Woods’ case.
In the six-justice majority opinion, authored by Justice Barbara Madsen, the court determined that the state’s exemption for religious organizations from Washington’s anti-discrimination employment law remained constitutional. However, the way it was applied to Woods may not have been legal, the court ruled, in that the position Woods applied for may not have been ministerial work protected by the exemption.
It’s now up to King County Superior Court to decide if the staff attorney job qualified as ministerial duties.
“Whether or not a religious institution is exempted from discrimination will come down to the responsibilities and duties of the position and not on the identities carried by the employee,” said Denise Diskin, attorney for Woods and executive director of the QLaw Foundation. “This decision has made it clear that religious employers do not have the unfettered right to discriminate against a group of people based on their belief systems.”
Woods, who now works as a staff attorney at the Northwest Justice Project specializing in eviction prevention, said he believes it’s important for LGBTQ clients, who disproportionately experience homelessness at higher rates, to see their experiences reflected in the people who work with them.
“I think that that community is so much better served by people doing the work who are representative of the community members themselves,” Woods said.