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Washington Law Threatens Mission of Homeless Ministry

Washington state officials try to punish religious nonprofits like Yakima Union Gospel Mission for hiring only those who share and live out their religious beliefs.
Alliance Defending Freedom
Mike Johnson, CEO of Yakima Union Gospel Mission

While the word “homelessness” may conjure up an image of the nation’s largest cities, it’s not just the bustling metropolis where homeless people are suffering. It’s in cities and towns—small and large—throughout the country. 

That’s the case in Yakima, Washington, where one Christian organization has spent more than eight decades serving the homeless and embodying God’s love for them.

But government officials’ new interpretation and enforcement of a Washington law is forcing this organization to hire people who don’t agree with its foundational beliefs or risk punishment by the state.

What is Yakima Union Gospel Mission?

Yakima Union Gospel Mission is a Christian nonprofit based in Yakima, Washington, helps people move from homelessness to wholeness. It was founded in 1936 with the goal of spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ through its work as a Mission.

During its last fiscal year, the mission provided shelter for nearly 1,000 people, distributed more than 130,000 meals, and reached over 500 homeless people with it outreach efforts.

Everything the mission does is guided by its Christian beliefs. Its Christian beliefs drive its acts of service, sharing the Gospel and teachings, and discipleship amongst its employees.

In order to effectively share the Gospel with the people it serves and fulfill its religious calling, Yakima Union Gospel Mission must be able to hire people who share and live out its Christian beliefs. While the First Amendment clearly protects this right, Washington officials are infringing it.

Union Gospel Mission of Yakima v. Ferguson

The Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD) prohibits employers from discriminating against applicants because of certain protected characteristics such as national origin and sex. In 2006, Washington’s governor signed a law adding “sexual orientation” to the list of characteristics protected by the WLAD.

The law used to exempt religious nonprofits like Yakima Union Gospel Mission, which allowed these organizations to hire only those who shared and lived out their beliefs.

And since Yakima Union Gospel Mission has a stated purpose of sharing the Gospel with everyone it serves, it needs to be free to hire people who believe and adhere to the Bible themselves.

But in March 2021, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the religious employer exemption only applied to “ministerial employees.” The court determined that for all other positions, religious nonprofits would be forced to hire people who disagree with, and don’t live out, their religious beliefs—in this case, biblical teaching about marriage and sexuality.

Now, the WLAD forces Yakima Union Gospel Mission to hire those who don’t share its beliefs or risk punishment by the state.

Yakima Union Gospel Mission routinely receives applications from people who openly oppose its Christian beliefs.

The mission currently has positions open for an IT technician and an operations assistant. Neither of these positions qualifies as “ministerial,” but both are required to live out Christian values, share the Gospel with everyone they meet, serve the homeless with the love of Christ, pray for fellow employees, and disciple one another.

But under the state’s current interpretation and enforcement of the WLAD, Yakima Union Gospel Mission is forced to hire employees for these positions who do not share or live out its Christian beliefs, on pain of substantial penalties.

This undermines the mission’s ministry work, chills its religious message, threatens its existence, and violates its First Amendment freedoms to have religious autonomy, to freely exercise religion, and to associate with likeminded people of faith.

In fact, the mission has been forced to pause hiring for its IT technician and operations assistant positions because of the penalties under the WLAD for hiring only people who agree with and live out its beliefs.

The WLAD also prohibits Yakima Union Gospel Mission from publishing a religious hiring statement specifying that all employees must live out the mission’s Christian beliefs.

The state is thus forcing the mission to change how it operates and is hindering the mission’s goal of sharing the Gospel and accomplishing its religious calling. If the mission violates the WLAD, it faces the possibility of lawsuits both from individuals and state officials, as well as other forms of punishment.

In March 2023, Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit on behalf of Yakima Union Gospel Mission asking a federal district court to affirm the mission’s First Amendment right to hire employees who share its beliefs.

What’s at stake?

Religious organizations must be able to hire employees who share their beliefs. Otherwise, their entire purpose is undermined.

Two U.S. Supreme Court justices have already said, “If States could compel religious organizations to hire employees who fundamentally disagree with them, many religious non-profits would be extinguished from participation in public life—perhaps by those who disagree with their theological views most vigorously.”

A ruling in favor of Yakima Union Gospel Mission would ensure religious organizations can continue to live out their faith by hiring people who share their beliefs.

Case timeline

  • March 2021: A Washington Supreme Court ruling effectively gutted the WLAD’s exemption for religious employers.
  • March 2023: ADF attorneys filed a lawsuit on behalf of Yakima Union Gospel Mission seeking to protect its right to hire employees who share its beliefs.

The bottom line

Religious organizations are free to hire employees who are aligned with and live out their religious beliefs.