Union Gospel Mission argues anti-gay hiring policy is religious freedom at work
Seattle has a hiring clause that prevents it from giving money to organizations that discriminate. But it also appears that the city knew about the Union Gospel Mission’s hiring practices when it contracted with the organization to clear out the Jungle.
Two years ago, Matt Woods, a new law school grad and volunteer attorney at Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission, received an e-mail encouraging him and other volunteers to apply for a full-time legal aid job.
Woods was excited. But he had a question: As an employee, could he bring his boyfriend to Mission events?
The answer was no. Nor would Woods longer be eligible for the legal aid staff attorney position, the Mission told him, because of his newly disclosed sexual orientation.
The Union Gospel Mission is one of the largest homeless service providers in the city. The city contracted with the Mission twice in 2016: nearly $28,000 in the first part of the year to shelter people in Lake City, and a proposed $100,000 in the second half of the year to do outreach in “the Jungle,” the long stretch of land under I-5 formerly hosting nearly 400 homeless people living in tents.
The city has anti-discrimination language in its contracts, but it also appears that the city may have known of the Mission’s anti-gay hiring policy when it signed the $100,000 contract.
Scott Lindsay, the former public safety advisor for the Mayor’s Office under the Ed Murray administration, recalled speaking to the Union Gospel Mission’s president about its hiring policy at the time. The Jungle had recently experienced a shooting, and the city was under pressure to clear it.
The Union Gospel Mission, Lindsay said, was the only organization in town equipped to do the kind of pre-clearing outreach the city needed.
“I was exasperated with them,” Lindsay said. “Like who in this day-and-age, especially a social services organization as important and prominent as UGM has discriminatory hiring practices against LGBTQ people? In Seattle?”
Seattle partner for homelessness
When Woods applied to work at the Mission, the organization was partnered with the City of Seattle to provide homelessness outreach.
Several months before his rejection, the city also scrutinized the Mission’s hiring practices.
“We are navigating through harsh resistance and questioning related to your staffing/hiring practices, and service expectations,” wrote Jason Johnson, Seattle Human Services Department deputy director, to former Mission president Jeff Lilley on May 31.
“I understand that you have a commitment of faith that staff sign, but we are also getting questions and comments that you do not allow gay/lesbian staff to be employed at UGM.”
Lindsay, who spoke to the Mission’s president about this hiring policy at the time, said he was personally conflicted about the policy, but that the city didn’t have a “backup plan” for the Jungle.
“If the city just said, ‘No, we wouldn't work with UGM at all,’ then that would have significantly changed the outcomes for a lot of people who received their help through their dedication of their outreach workers during that difficult Jungle period,” Lindsay said. “I'm glad that their employment practice is being challenged, but I also think it's important to acknowledge that they did absolutely vital work.”
A week after the Human Services Department and Lindsay questioned the Mission about its hiring policy, the city nevertheless decided to sign a contract with the organization for $100,000. The intent: to fund client support in the Jungle, but not pay the organization directly for their administration or services, Lindsay said. The funds were to come from money appropriated in the state budget.
But it doesn’t appear that the full $100,000 was ever billed. According to the city’s Human Services Department, the Mission only billed the city for roughly $20,000.
The Mission’s last annual report, published in August 2017, lists the City of Seattle as an organizational partner that had contributed more than $10,000. But Seattle’s Human Services Department no longer contracts with the Mission.
A spokesperson for the department said the money mentioned in the Mission’s 2017 report was spillover from the previous year’s contracts. The city says that it maintains non-discrimination language in its contracts, which would have prohibited the Mission from receiving city money.
David Mitchell, the interim president of the Union Gospel Mission, told KUOW that his organization’s relationship with the city has not been severed – though its last contract with the city ended amicably, and for several thousand dollars less than what was contracted, more than a year ago.
“On a daily basis our Outreach Team currently works with Seattle Police (and police in other cities throughout King County), the Navigation Team, and other city and government service providers – along with social service providers and churches,” he said.
Are lawyers ministers?
Woods, the attorney rejected from the Mission job because of his sexual orientation, is now suing the homelessness services provider over what he says is a violation of state anti-discrimination law.
But the Mission says Woods’ lawsuit threatens the organization’s religious freedom. In court, the Mission is arguing that restricting their anti-gay hiring policy violates their First Amendment rights as a church. (The Mission is tax-exempt and registered as a religious organization.) And, they say, even staff attorneys are there to evangelize. The legal aid clinic exists, the Mission says, “for the purpose of seeing Gospel transformation in the lives of its clients.”
According to documents filed in Woods’ lawsuit, the then-30-year-old attorney said he didn’t know the Mission had an anti-gay hiring policy when he worked at the legal aid clinic as a volunteer. Woods says he is a Christian: He attended Seattle Pacific University, an evangelical college, and signed the Mission’s “statement of faith,” which requires employees to agree that the Bible is the “infallible” word of God.
And Woods says the statement of faith didn’t make reference to sexual orientation.
“While the Statement of Faith requires agreement that the Bible is the ‘infallible’ word of God,” Woods wrote in a declaration for his lawsuit, “many Christians interpret the Bible to oppose discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.”
In his lawsuit, Woods also contends that he never believed it was his job responsibility to discuss his faith with clients.
But the Mission says its religious ideology has always been clear – and that Mission attorneys are indeed part of their ministry.
“The Mission exists to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” Mission program director Terry Pallas wrote in court documents. “The primary responsibility of every Mission employee, even in the face of urgent physical need, is to preach the Gospel.”
Pallas also said he questioned Woods’ beliefs.
“I have reviewed Plaintiff’s description of his relationship with Jesus Christ in his application for employment,” Pallas wrote. “Very generally speaking, people who describe their faith relationship with Christ in purely social justice terms similar to Plaintiff do not share the Mission’s view that its work is a means to the end of developing a life-transforming, personal relationship with Jesus.”
While the Mission’s standalone statement of faith – which is available online – may not reference sexual orientation, its employee handbook does.
All employees, the handbook states, must live by a Biblical moral code that excludes “homosexual behavior,” along with “any activity that would have an appearance of evil.”
The Mission’s original articles of incorporation also stress the primacy of evangelizing over all else. “Any phase of the work other than direct evangelism,” they state, “shall be kept entirely subordinate and only taken on so far as seems necessary or helpful to the spiritual work.”
‘We're not leading with the faith component’
Back in 2016, the city and the Mission made some inroads in the Jungle, but their success was limited. An August 2016 assessment of the Mission’s outreach efforts in the Jungle found that while outreach workers made contact with 357 people living under I-5, just one in five accepted offers of housing, shelter, or services.
When speaking to KUOW’s Bill Radke during that period of outreach, Jeff Lilley, the former Union Gospel Mission president, said the organization wasn’t in the Jungle to proselytize.
“We’re not leading with the faith component of saying, ‘Hey, we’re here to talk about Jesus with you,” Lilley told Radke.
“Quite frankly what we’re there to do is be Jesus to them. It’s to simply love on them and care for them and listen to them. And we direct them to the whole battery of services that we have, and that the city has, other service providers, everything that’s out there.”
Oral arguments in Woods’ case will take place in King County Superior Court on June 15.