Skip to content

WA state legislators support Christian homeless ministry

ADF attorneys represent Yakima Union Gospel Mission in appeal at 9th Circuit
Mike Johnson, CEO of Yakima Union Gospel Mission

YAKIMA, Wash. – Multiple former and current Washington state legislators—along with other organizations—submitted friend-of-the-court briefs Wednesday with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in support of a Washington state homeless ministry. Yakima Union Gospel Mission 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. Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys filed their opening brief on behalf of the mission last week after a lower court dismissed the case.

“Religious organizations are free to hire employees who are aligned with and live out their religious beliefs,” said ADF Legal Counsel Jake Reed. “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. We urge the court to listen to these legislators and take this opportunity to correct the lower court’s decision so that the mission can continue its valuable services.”

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.

In their brief filed in Union Gospel Mission of Yakima v. Ferguson, Washington legislators expressed concern that the state’s reinterpretation of state law now threatens the Mission and other ministries. “The Washington State Legislature exempted religious nonprofits like YUGM because of the enormous contributions they make to the common good, by allowing them to devote their limited resources to some of the most vulnerable and consequently lessen the burden on governmental assistance programs and public education,” they wrote. “The Washington Supreme Court’s decision…not only struck down the exemption enacted over 50 years ago, but it also precludes the Washington State Legislature from attempting to enact an even narrower exemption to protect against lawsuits such as this one. Tens of thousands of Washington religious organizations, including houses of worship, have no protection against the invasive enforcement actions of government bureaucrats and secular courts where a plaintiff asserts a fundamental right of citizenship and the employment position does not implicate the ministerial exemption.”

In November 2022, ADF attorneys favorably settled a similar case for the Wyoming Rescue Mission, which also filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the 9th Circuit in support of the Yakima Union Gospel Mission. “Religious employers’ pursuit of employees who share their mission is not invidious but indispensable to maintaining the character of the religious organization. A religious employer should be free to hire those who both believe what the organization believes and who seek to live consistently with those beliefs,” the brief explains. “Recognition of coreligionist protections for religious organizations is essential to religious freedom, freedom of speech and association. Without these protections, religious groups cannot carry out their religious mission.”

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.

# # #

Related Profiles

Ryan Tucker
Ryan Tucker
Senior Counsel, Director of the Center for Christian Ministries
Ryan Tucker serves as senior counsel and director of the Center for Christian Ministries with Alliance Defending Freedom.
Jacob Reed
Jacob Reed
Legal Counsel
Jacob Reed serves as legal counsel for the Center for Christian Ministries with Alliance Defending Freedom.