On Monday, the Supreme Court denied a hearing to a Seattle-based Christian group that refused to hire a bisexual attorney, despite the fact that two justices on the high court’s right flank were clearly sympathetic to the religious group’s position.
Justice Samuel Alito argued for a broader interpretation of the so-called “ministerial exception” to federal anti-discrimination law in a six-page statement. Alito’s statement in Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission v. Matthew S. Woods, in which he was joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, is the first in a series from Alito on giving religious groups latitude under civil rights law. The justices appeared to agree that the case isn’t ready for review yet.
The case sparked controversy in 2017 when attorney Matthew Woods filed a lawsuit against Union Gospel Mission (the “Mission”) in state court in Washington. Woods claimed that by refusing to hire him as a staff attorney with its Open Door Legal Services (ODLS) programs, the Christian organization broke federal anti-discrimination law.
The Mission, a nonprofit Christian ministry, runs ODLS, a free legal-aid clinic. The clinic has a religious bent, and its staff engages in religious activities with its clients, such as praying with them and talking about Jesus. Employees must regularly attend church, have a pastor’s recommendation, and provide information about their “personal relationship with Jesus,” according to the clinic’s requirements.
Woods previously worked as a summer intern and volunteer for ODLS. When the ODLS advertised a staff attorney position, Woods approached the director about applying. The director responded by telling Woods that he was unable to “apply” because the employee handbook expressly prohibited “homosexual behavior.” Woods still applied, and in his cover letter, he requested that ODLS change its policies.
The director told Woods that his “employment application was not viable because he did not comply with the Mission’s religious lifestyle requirements, did not actively attend church, and did not exhibit a passion for helping clients develop a personal relationship with Jesus” because ODLS refused to change its policies. Woods filed a lawsuit, alleging that the Mission discriminated against him because of his sexual orientation, which is against Washington State law.
The Washington State Supreme Court ruled in Woods’ favor, concluding that discrimination based on sexual orientation is illegal under the state constitution. However, the court made it clear that the discrimination was a problem because Woods would have been an employee. It went on to say that if Woods’ position had been that of a “minister,” the state constitution would not have been violated. The case was then remanded to “the trial court to determine whether staff attorneys can qualify as ministers,” according to the court.
In a recent case involving the “ministerial exception” in schools, Justice Alito wrote that the Washington Supreme Court was mistaken in believing the exception only applies to “formal ministers.” Rather, he reminded, “our precedents suggest that the guarantee of church autonomy is not so narrowly confined.”
Woods’ case, according to Alito, “illustrates that serious risk,” and the Washington Supreme Court may have ruled in a way that is directly in violation of the US Constitution.
The mission’s lawyer, John Bursch, interpreted Alito’s statement as a positive sign for the case’s future.
The case is not yet ready for SCOTUS review, according to Alito, who wrote that “threshold issues would make it difficult for us to review this case” at this time.
The conservative justices’ statement was quickly interpreted by legal experts as an indication of their desire to expand the ministerial exception even further. “Alito, joined by Thomas, wants to expand religious employers’ “ministerial exception” from civil rights law, giving these employers complete freedom to discriminate against any job applicant or employee who does not share the employer’s religious views,” Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern tweeted.
“There’s no subtlety here,” Zack Ford, the press secretary for the advocacy group Alliance for Justice, tweeted. Employers should be free to discriminate against workers simply for being in a same-sex relationship if it violates the employer’s religious beliefs, Alito and Thomas argue.