The U.S. Supreme Court announced Monday that it will not review a case involving Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission, which was sued in 2017 over its anti-LGBTQ+ hiring policy after it declined to hire a bisexual lawyer who applied for a job.
Justice Samuel Alito and Justice Clarence Thomas agreed with the decision not to hear the case at this stage. But according to The Associated Press, they said that “the day may soon come” when the court needs to confront the issue the case presents.
The Seattle-based Christian organization filed a petition in August 2021, asking the Supreme Court to decide a case in which the Washington Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, attorney Matt Woods, in March 2021.
Letting the Washington Supreme Court’s decision stand could potentially create a path for more LGBTQ+ employees to work for religious social service agencies in Washington state.
“Lately seeing all kinds of anti-trans bills passing around the country and protections for queer people being threatened,” Woods said, “it was a big relief to see today that the Washington Supreme Court’s decision protecting LGBTQ people from employment discrimination will not be challenged at the Supreme Court.”
The case started in 2017 when Woods sued the Union Gospel Mission when the nonprofit refused to hire him to its free legal aid clinic after he disclosed he was in a same-sex relationship. Prior to applying for a job with the Mission, Woods had volunteered there for years. The Mission, one of the largest homeless service providers in the Seattle area, argued that the state’s anti-discrimination law didn’t apply because it is a religious employer.
Woods’ suit claimed that the position doing front-line social services work in the organization’s legal aid clinic was protected by state anti-discrimination law. The Mission argued the opposite: that its legal aid work — which helps low-income and homeless clients with everything from getting IDs to dealing with court fines — was inseparable from its mission to preach the gospel.
When the case was first brought before a court, a King County Superior Court judge agreed with the Mission, dismissing Woods’ lawsuit.
But in March of last year, the Washington Supreme Court overturned the King County decision, moving Woods’ case back to the lower court.
The Washington Supreme Court’s ruling questioned whether the state’s religious-employer exemption from Washington’s anti-discrimination law applied to a staff attorney position at a legal aid clinic.
Denise Diskin, executive director of the QLaw Foundation of Seattle, which has been doing the legal work on the case along with Legal Voice and Seattle Employment Law Partners, said the state Supreme Court ruled that religious employers cannot discriminate unless the employee is a minister. But Diskin said it is unclear whether Woods would have been considered ministerial under that definition.
Those key facts around whether a staff attorney position in a legal aid clinic could be considered a “minister” is what’s left to be decided in lower court, Diskin explained in a call Monday afternoon. She said that they plan to reach out to the Mission to discuss next steps.
“We hope that we can reach an agreement that preserves the intent of the Washington Supreme Court,” Diskin said. “If not, what we’ll do is go back to court and establish more facts about the job duties of these legal clinic staff attorneys and whether they are ministerial.”
The Union Gospel Mission has yet to comment about Monday’s Supreme Court decision.
In 2016, the city of Seattle contracted with the Mission to help with outreach to homeless people living in The Jungle, a long piece of greenbelt along Interstate 5 that has a history of holding encampments, before it was cleared of residents.
The case highlighted ongoing conflict in a local and national social services infrastructure that relies heavily on religious institutions.
Religious nonprofits make up a crucial part of the homelessness services system both in Seattle and across the country. One 2016 analysis found that religious organizations provided 41% of the country’s emergency homeless shelter beds for adults.
The issue of hiring LGBTQ+ employees has roiled religious agencies in the Seattle area for years. As recently as 2018, the parent agency of World Concern, a Christian development agency headquartered in Seattle, told World Concern’s former board president he would not be invited to serve another term after he came out as gay.
Four years earlier, outrage in response to a Federal Way-based Christian development organization’s decision to allow same-sex couples on staff prompted the agency, World Vision, to reverse its decision two days later.
Woods said that he was driven to see this case through because he, as a white cisgender bisexual man, felt he had a lot of privilege to help others who face even more layers of oppression.
“I think that was the heart of it for me,” he said.
Currently, the Supreme Court has a different but similar dispute on its docket, involving a Colorado web designer who says her religious beliefs prevent her from offering wedding website designs to gay couples. That case is expected to be argued in the fall.