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WA homeless ministry asks 9th Circuit to protect freedom to hire likeminded people of faith

ADF attorneys represent Yakima Union Gospel Mission

Thursday, Nov 9, 2023

YAKIMA, Wash. – Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys representing the Yakima Union Gospel Mission filed their opening brief Wednesday with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit after a lower court dismissed the mission’s case. The Christian nonprofit is asking the court to protect its freedom to hire like-minded individuals who share and live out its religious beliefs and mission to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ through its homeless shelter, addiction-recovery programs, outreach efforts, meal services, and health clinics.

The Yakima Union Gospel Mission will serve anybody, but it furthers its religious purpose by employing likeminded believers who agree with and live out the mission’s Christian beliefs and practices, including abstaining from any sexual conduct outside of marriage between a man and a woman. In 2021, the Washington Supreme Court reinterpreted state law to prohibit religious organizations, including the mission, from only hiring individuals who share their religious beliefs. Soon after state officials began enforcing the law against religious organizations, and now the mission is threatened with significant penalties for using its religiously based hiring practices.

“Religious organizations are free to hire employees who are aligned with and live out their religious beliefs,” said ADF Senior Counsel Ryan Tucker, director of the ADF Center for Christian Ministries. “Yakima Union Gospel Mission faces substantial penalties under Washington state law for simply engaging in its constitutionally protected freedom to hire fellow believers who share the mission’s calling to spread the gospel and care for vulnerable people in the Yakima community. The Constitution allows religious institutions to make all of their hiring decisions based on an alignment of beliefs without fear of penalty. We are urging the 9th Circuit to allow the mission to seek protection in federal court so that it can continue its valuable services while continuing to adhere to the very beliefs that motivate its outreach.”

In the wake of the state’s new interpretation and enforcement of the Washington Law Against Discrimination, the mission has received applications from people who openly disagree with, or are hostile to, its religious beliefs on marriage and sexuality. To avoid being penalized by the state, the mission removed an online employment posting for an IT technician, refrained from posting an operations assistant position, and has paused hiring for those two positions.

As the brief in Union Gospel Mission of Yakima v. Ferguson makes clear, the state of Washington has been active in unlawfully enforcing WLAD against religious organizations in accordance with the state high court’s reinterpretation of the law. Examples noted in the brief include the state’s investigations and threats of punishment against Seattle Pacific University and florist Barronelle Stutzman. “[D]espite repeated opportunities, the State refuses to disavow enforcement of the WLAD against the Mission and fellow religious employers,” the brief states. “Instead, the attorney general has promised to enforce the WLAD precisely in the way the Mission fears.”

The Yakima Union Gospel Mission explains that it loves and serves all people “right where they are” in multiple ways. For example, the mission offers shelter for the homeless 365 days a year and provides a family shelter for families with children. From July 1, 2021, to June 30, 2022, the mission provided a total of 30,167 nights of shelter to 881 different adults and 3,592 nights of shelter for children. Its Good News Café provides free meals three times a day to the public and shelter guests; the mission served 141,629 free meals in that same timeframe. Additionally, the mission’s New Life Recovery Program helps people recover from drug and alcohol addictions and homelessness, and its health clinics offer free or reduced-cost services.

Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization committed to protecting religious freedom, free speech, parental rights, and the sanctity of life.

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