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Homeless outreach ordered to hire worker who opposes its principles goes to US Supreme Court

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A man sleeps outside the Homeless Help Desk kiosk in the Skid Row community of Los Angeles, California on April 26, 2021.

Across nearly nine decades of operation, Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission has proven unusually good at an unusually difficult job — helping the city’s growing number of homeless people find food, shelter, jobs … and most important, some measure of peace.

It’s hard, of course, to measure what happens in a person’s soul, but the impact of the Mission’s staff and programs on the thousands of hurting people who cross their paths each year can be inferred from one number: 70 percent of those who’ve come through the Mission’s programs are still sober and either working or in school two years later. No other homeless outreach in the state claims the same success.

In a state where more than 21,000 homeless individuals crowded the streets last year, that success rate is a remarkable accomplishment — and speaks to a lot of lives changed.

One might attribute the Mission’s accomplishments to the fact that those coming there have already made up their minds to change. But the Mission’s staffers are not content to wait for whoever comes to them. They go out into the bleakest corners of the city to interact with those struggling to survive. No hard sell, no high-pressure pitch: just initiating relationships, listening to stories, building a friendship … then offering a prayer and whatever kind of tangible help a hurting soul might need, crouched under an overpass, watching the rain and the traffic going by.

If that sounds less like a soup kitchen than a missionary effort — you’re right. The founding principle of the Mission is not ending homelessness. It is (as the name makes clear) sharing the Gospel. The bunk, the meals, and the job opportunities are a sideline, because they, Mission staffers have found, comfort but never truly change anyone. Only the Gospel accomplishes that.

Which is why all who work at the Mission are required to share its religious beliefs, be active in a Christian church, and live out the Christian faith. For every employee, social work takes a backseat to sharing the Gospel.


“If my job is sharing the Gospel,” asks one Mission leader, “how can I be forced to hire people who don’t?”

That question is aimed at the Washington Supreme Court, which sought to punish Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission for declining to hire someone who admits he doesn’t share the Mission’s beliefs and couldn’t provide the required pastor recommendation. He applied for a position stating that he wanted to change the Mission’s beliefs — the very faith that spurred its remarkable success.

Forcing the Mission to hire him is a blatant violation of the First Amendment. How is the ministry supposed to operate according to its mission when the government says it may not hire based on shared faith?

There is no religious freedom if the state can dictate employment decisions to a religious group. Should a court be able to order a Catholic social-welfare agency to enlist atheists? Or a synagogue to employ Muslim staff members? That’s deliberately undermining the practices of a given religious group … because certain government officials don’t embrace those practices.

That’s why the Mission has petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear its case. Washington’s actions pose a clear threat not only to the religious freedom of the Mission — but to everyone in the state.

What’s more, those actions would destroy what has been, for almost a century, one of Seattle’s most effective outreaches to its homeless population. You don’t have to share the Mission’s religious beliefs to see that they should be able to operate according to those beliefs. After all, it is those beliefs and the Mission’s evangelization that have been so spectacularly successful.

The government should never tell a religious organization that it must hire those whose express hope is to change the organization’s beliefs. The Supreme Court needs to step in and make that clear. Everyone benefits when religion flourishes.

John Bursch is senior counsel and vice president of appellate advocacy with Alliance Defending Freedom (@Alliance Defends) and represents Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission.

Tags Freedom of religion

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