Wyoming Ministry Protects Its Freedom to Hire
For over 40 years, the Wyoming Rescue Mission has assisted the community of Casper, Wyoming. It serves community members who are homeless, struggling with addiction, or simply need someone to come alongside and help them through a difficult time.
Sharing the good news of Jesus Christ is at the core of the Mission’s purpose. Through its work with the less fortunate, the Mission strives “to see lives transformed and healed through the Grace of Jesus Christ.”
In order to accomplish this goal, the Mission must have the freedom to hire employees who share the same Christian beliefs. But the government sought to undermine this goal by forcing the Mission to hire employees who openly reject those beliefs. Let’s take a closer look at this case.
What is the Wyoming Rescue Mission?
The Wyoming Rescue Mission was founded in 1978 by the Rev. Art Munchler. Originally called Soul’s Anchor, it operated as an emergency shelter in Casper.
In 1991, Soul’s Anchor moved into a new building and was renamed the Central Wyoming Rescue Mission. Four years later, it purchased additional property across the street and started the Discipleship Program, a transitional housing program aimed at counseling men through Christ-centered mentorship, and in leading them to Christ.
In the three decades since, the Mission has established numerous outreach programs, including two Rescued Treasures thrift stores and a women’s transitional program. It officially changed its name to Wyoming Rescue Mission in 2017 to reflect its commitment to serve the whole state of Wyoming through its Christ-centered ministry.
Today, the Mission houses homeless people; provides free meals, clothing, and other necessary items to less fortunate community members; and offers recovery programs for drug addiction. But most importantly, it seeks to spread the Gospel in and through everything it does. Every employee must be committed to this goal, including those who work in the Rescued Treasures thrift stores.
The Mission has achieved extraordinary success. In 2021, it provided 60,862 free meals to those in need, enrolled 92 people in the Discipleship Recovery Program, and gifted 1,208 Rescued Treasures thrift store vouchers (worth over $39,000) to provide those in need with free clothes and essential items.
Wyoming Rescue Mission v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
In September 2020, the Mission posted a job opening for a store associate at one of its Rescued Treasures thrift stores. The position is part of the Mission’s Discipleship Recovery Program, a one-year addiction-recovery program modeled after biblical teaching.
The store associate role includes the responsibility of teaching guests enrolled in the Discipleship Recovery Program how to model Christ and share the Gospel with others. For that reason, this role needed to be filled by someone who believed in the truth of the Gospel, and the opening detailed the need for applicants to have a strong Christian faith.
When the Mission conducted an interview with one applicant in October 2020, the applicant admitted to not sharing the Christian faith, and in fact admitted to having no faith at all.
The applicant also failed to provide the name of a church or a spiritual reference, which the Mission had requested through the application. As a result, the Mission chose not to hire this applicant and instead hired another applicant who shared its Christian faith.
The Mission thought that would be the end of the story. Instead, the applicant who was not hired filed a dual Charge of Discrimination with the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The applicant cited Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Wyoming Fair Employment Practices Act of 1965 (FEPA). The department responded by beginning an investigation that ultimately took more than 16 months.
Neither Title VII nor FEPA applies to the faith-based hiring decisions of religious organizations. Title VII is clear that these organizations have the freedom to hire employees who share beliefs consistent with those of the organization. Nonetheless, the department ignored this fact and determined the Wyoming Rescue Mission had discriminated against the applicant and likely violated FEPA and Title VII.
Following this finding, the department proposed an agreement that would have forced the Wyoming Rescue Mission to provide the applicant back pay and change its hiring practices immediately. It would have also required the Wyoming Rescue Mission to hire non-Christians and submit written reports to the department proving it was compliant with its demands, and provide training on these changes to employees within 90 days.
The Mission declined the proposed agreement, and the department sent the complaint to the EEOC for “further processing.”
After reviewing the complaint, the EEOC also determined there was “reasonable cause” to believe the Mission had discriminated against the applicant. Once again, the EEOC ignored the religious exemption clearly laid out in Title VII. While the EEOC chose not to sue the Wyoming Rescue Mission immediately, it issued the applicant a right-to-sue letter and reserved its right to sue the Mission later.
With its religious hiring rights in jeopardy, the Wyoming Rescue Mission decided to file a lawsuit to defend its right to hire those who share its faith.
After the Mission sued, the EEOC almost immediately reversed its decision and concluded that “it was not unlawful for [the Mission] to refuse to hire [the applicant] based on her religion (non-Christian).” And the state department also quickly agreed to a court-approved consent decree, which stated the Mission can “prefer to hire only coreligionists—those individuals who agree with and live out the Mission’s religious beliefs and practices.”
If the government had had its way, the Mission would have faced an impossible choice: give up the biblical hiring practices that are central to its ministry or change the way it ministers to community members.
The government sought to punish the Wyoming Rescue Mission for hiring employees in accordance with its Christian mission. This is improper based on exemptions provided to religious organizations in both the Wyoming statute and Title VII.
The First Amendment also allows the Mission to share its faith with everyone it interacts with. In order to effectively spread the Gospel throughout the community, the Mission must be afforded the freedom to hire employees who share the same Christian beliefs.
Thankfully, after ADF filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Mission, the government reversed course.
- October 2020: The applicant who interviewed at the Wyoming Rescue Mission but was not chosen for not meeting the position requirements filed a dual Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC and the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services. This charge alleged the Mission had illegally discriminated against the applicant on the basis of religion. The department then opened an investigation.
- December 2021: The department announced its finding that the Mission had likely violated federal law and discriminated against the applicant. It proposed a conciliation agreement that would force the Mission to change its hiring practices, and the Mission declined. The EEOC subsequently confirmed the department’s findings and maintained the right to sue the Mission later.
- September 2022: The Wyoming Rescue Mission, represented by ADF attorneys, filed a lawsuit against the EEOC for threatening to punish the Mission for exercising its freedom to hire employees who share its Christian beliefs.
- October 2022: The EEOC reversed course after the Mission sued, finding that the Mission acted properly in declining to hire an applicant who professed a different faith than the Mission’s.
- November 2022: Both the EEOC and Wyoming Department of Workforce Services acknowledged that they cannot force the Mission to hire people with differing religious beliefs and agreed to settle the lawsuit. The department agreed not to enforce either FEPA or Title VII against the Mission for preferring to hire members of the same faith. Both government agencies agreed to pay the Mission’s attorneys’ fees for bringing the lawsuit.
The bottom line
Religious organizations, including the Wyoming Rescue Mission, are free to hire those who share their beliefs without being threatened by the government.
ADF team members contributed to the writing and publication of this article.