The Washington state Supreme Court reversed a lower court’s decision this week regarding legal exemptions for religious employers, in a move that could open the door to forcing religious organizations to hire LGBT employees.
In the original ruling passed down more than two years ago, King County Superior Court Judge Karen Donohue dismissed a bisexual attorney’s complaint against Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission after the attorney, Matt Woods, sued the mission for discrimination when it refused to hire him upon learning of his sexuality.
The mission, Donohue ruled at the time, was acting within its rights because as a religious nonprofit it was exempt from the state’s anti-discrimination law regarding one’s sexual orientation. But now the state Supreme Court has reversed that ruling and ordered that the case return to the lower court, the Seattle Times reported.
Seattle Times reporter Sydney Brownstone was careful to note that while the court’s ruling doesn’t altogether strike down the religious employer exemption it “questions whether that exemption applies to a staff attorney at a legal aid clinic.” The decision, she noted, “could potentially open the door to more LGBTQ staffers working in social services at religious nonprofits.”
And because many of the state’s social service programs are run by religious organizations, the ruling could have serious ripple effects far beyond just homeless shelters.
In response to the new development, Woods said he was relieved.
“To get the affirmation from the court that religious organizations don’t have a right to blanket discriminate against LGBTQ people for who they are no matter what the job is a big relief,” he said. “Especially for members of my community that are so much more likely to experience discrimination in the workplace because of their race or gender identity.”
The mission, one of Seattle’s largest homeless shelter and service organizations, declined to comment when contacted by the Times.
The Times report adds that “local religious organizations have been undergoing a reckoning in recent years, as same-sex marriage has gained acceptance from the general public.”
Though not directly related to the case in Washington state, the ruling certainly represents the kind of legal challenges that could arise for religious organizations should the Equality Act pass both chambers of Congress and be signed into law.
The legislation, which passed in the House last month, may soon threaten punishment against individuals and organizations who still hold to traditional beliefs about marriage, gender identity, and sexual orientation.