Supreme Court Should Restore Religious Freedom to Seattle Homeless Ministry

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Every night, they drive to the darkest places in the greater Seattle area to help the city’s homeless. Their search-and-rescue vans deliver lifesaving care and supplies to men and women living on the streets. They bring light to the darkest places in the form of a wool blanket, food, water, and the offer of a warm bed at a safe shelter, but most importantly, they bring hope for a brighter tomorrow.

Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission is a force for good in a city racked by homelessness.

I am from Seattle and spent more than 16 years practicing law there. I saw firsthand the Mission’s incredible impact in providing food, shelter, addiction recovery, job placement, mental health, and legal services to the city’s homeless population. The Mission’s roots go back to the Great Depression, when the Mission opened its doors as a soup kitchen. And it was Mission staff who helped Seattle clear “The Jungle” – a large homeless encampment – to offer essential services to the displaced individuals.

The Mission’s effective, life-changing solutions to the city’s homeless epidemic should be commended. Instead, the Washington Supreme Court is threatening the Mission’s religious ministry.

Seattle's Union Gospel Mission
Seattle's Union Gospel Mission, Seattle, Washington.

In an unprecedented decision, the Washington Supreme Court rewrote state employment law to force the Mission to hire a lawyer for its legal-aid clinic who refused to follow the Mission’s religious-lifestyle requirements, was not active in a local church, disagreed with the Mission’s beliefs, and applied for the position with the stated intent of changing those beliefs.

The idea that the government can force any religious nonprofit to hire someone who is actively protesting those beliefs is unconscionable. If the government can dictate who the Mission can hire, it can also demand that a synagogue employ a Christian, a Muslim ministry hire those living inconsistent with the Koran, or a Catholic school employ an atheist.

Simply put, Washington state does not have this power under the U.S. Constitution, which is why we have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear this case. This decision has enormous ramifications not only on the future of the Mission and Seattle’s homeless crisis, but on every other religious nonprofit in America – and whether we still honor religious freedom.

Seattle's Union Gospel Mission
Seattle's Union Gospel Mission President Scott Chin (right) praying with two people in Seattle, Washington

We all benefit when faith-based institutions are free to care for the poor and vulnerable without government interference. According to a 2016 study, religion contributes nearly $1.2 trillion of socio-economic value to the U.S. economy. (And trust me, cities like Seattle are in no position to absorb that kind of added financial burden).

The government put the Mission in an untenable position: either shut down and stop serving the homeless or give up your biblical values. Neither is acceptable. It’s precisely because of its biblical beliefs and evangelization that the Mission is so effective and respected in a city desperately in need of meaningful solutions for homelessness. Indeed, the Mission understands that addressing homelessness means a lot more than just giving someone shelter – it requires a holistic approach of caring for the individual’s body, mind, and spirit.

Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission exists to live out the Greatest Commandments and the Great Commission. And carrying the message of Jesus Christ to the homeless has been spectacularly successful. Two years after program graduation, nearly 70% of the Mission’s clients are sober and either working or in school. And approximately 25% of the Mission’s staff are graduates of its programs.

Yet this case makes clear there are those in my home state who are so committed to forcing their own ideologies on others that they are willing to let their most at-risk residents suffer. Churches and nonprofits like Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission must be free to continue doing what they do best: bringing life-transforming change through the power and love of the Gospel.

Kristen Waggoner is general counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission. Follow Kristen on Twitter @KWaggonerADF or follow ADF @AllianceDefends.



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