Skip to content

No Room in Washington for Christian Homeless Ministry?

Yakima Union Gospel Mission has been spreading the Gospel and serving the homeless for 87 years.
Charles Snow
Written by
Mike Johnson of Yakima Union Gospel Mission talks with someone in a parking lot

In the Epistle of James, followers of Christ are told to “not merely listen to the word,” but also to “[d]o what is says.” In other words, Christians are called to not just be hearers of the word, but doers.

But what happens when the government threatens to use the full power of the state to punish a ministry that is doing the very things commanded in Scripture? In Yakima, Washington, we find one example.

What makes Yakima Union Gospel Mission special

In 1936, electricity was finally brought to rural America, Jesse Owens won four Olympic gold medals, and Gone with the Wind was published. It was also the year Yakima Union Gospel Mission was founded to serve those in need.

The Mission was founded with the express purpose to “spread the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ” through its service. Today, the Mission serves the Yakima community through its homeless shelter, addiction-recovery programs, outreach efforts, meal services, and medical and dental clinics. And the programs are effective: graduates of the Mission’s recovery program are four times more likely to stay sober than they would if participating in traditional detox programs.

Because of its emphasis on showing biblical love and leading others to Christ, the Mission cares not only for people’s physical needs but also for their spiritual needs. The goal of all the Mission’s programs and services remains to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ—to guests in the shelter, the homeless on the streets, shoppers at its thrift stores, volunteers, diners at its Good News Café, visitors to its health clinics, and everyone else in between.

Employees of the Mission are not just hearers of the word, but doers. The Mission’s employees are its hands, feet, and mouth. So all are essential to the Mission’s Christian calling. Because of that, the Mission needs to be able to hire people who believe and adhere its biblical beliefs.

Mike Johnson, the Mission’s CEO and a former Army Ranger, knows that this policy is critical to the Mission’s success. “Christian ministry is about pulling together a team for a life-or-death mission,” he says. “Our staff culture is the essence of our mission. Without forging this Christian mission, all we offer [people in need] are services—which is what the state already allows.”

“People think that homelessness is a service deficit. It’s not,” Mike says. “It’s a relationship deficit. And Christianity isn’t [just] a set of beliefs, but a relationship with Jesus Christ—which puts us into a brotherly relationship with those we serve.”

But after 87 years of dedicated service to the Yakima community, the Mission’s right to freely serve the homeless and the vulnerable consistent with its Christian mission is now under direct threat.

What the Mission faces

The Washington Supreme Court has reinterpreted the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD) to prohibit religious organizations, including the Mission, from hiring only individuals who share and live out their religious beliefs. In 2021, the state’s highest court gutted the religious employer exemption in the WLAD’s provisions, reducing it to the “ministerial exception.” One of the justices even labeled hiring practices by ministries like the Mission as a “license to discriminate.”

Shortly thereafter, Washington state officials began enforcing the WLAD against religious organizations. In 2022, the office of Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson began investigating Seattle Pacific University, a private Christian institution. Why? Upon the belief that the university’s lifestyle expectations policy—which prohibits employees “from engaging in sexual intimacy outside” of biblical marriage between one man and one woman—discriminated based on sexual orientation. The attorney general even turned the state’s investigation into a public crusade, encouraging people to file complaints with his civil rights team if they believe the university had discriminated against them.

Unfortunately, government officials in Washington have clearly abandoned their state’s namesake’s legacy on religious liberty.

Under state law, the Mission faces substantial penalties for simply engaging in its freedom—protected by the Constitution—to hire fellow believers who share and live out the ministry’s religious beliefs. The state is forcing the Mission to change how it operates. If it doesn’t change, it could face lawsuits from individuals and state officials, as well as other forms of punishment.

That’s why Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Mission against the state, seeking to protect its right to hire employees who share and adhere to its beliefs. Neither the Mission nor any other ministry should have to wait to be punished before it can challenge a law that’s unconstitutional.

Unfortunately, a federal district court ruled against the Mission, but the ministry’s legal journey is not over. We are appealing the Mission’s case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. “The Constitution allows religious institutions to make all of their hiring decisions based on an alignment of beliefs without fear of penalty,” said ADF Senior Counsel Ryan Tucker, director of the ADF Center for Christian Ministries. “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.”

Protecting the freedom to serve

If the Mission is forced to hire those who do not share its beliefs and mission to spread the Gospel, “It would literally destroy our ability to bring hope, joy, and life to the darkness, sorrow, and death on the streets,” Mike says. This essential right is not something he’s willing to give up on—and he’s no stranger to the power of perseverance.

After a tough childhood, Mike joined the Army Rangers to “find a mountain to climb.” “But I climbed the mountain and had nobody at the top waiting for me. I still felt like an orphan in my soul,” Mike says. Feeling spiritually vacant, he threw up a half-prayer to God: “What will I do when I get out of [the Rangers]?”

“God answered me out loud,” says Mike. “His voice said, ‘Preach my word.’”

More than 30 years later, Mike finds himself at the helm of the Mission—still preaching His word through the ministry’s service to the vulnerable in Yakima.

Amid the suffering in communities across the country, it’s unthinkable that government officials have chosen to threaten ministries like the Mission. It’s high time that these officials, too, become doers of the law in their own right and follow what the Constitution demands.

Charles Snow, Senior Copywriter & Editor
Charles Snow
Content Director
Charles Snow serves as Content Director at Alliance Defending Freedom, where he supports ADF's communications and fundraising efforts.