Court Says: Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission Cannot Claim Ministerial Exemptions for All Employees

QLaw Foundation’s Executive Director Denise Diskin, and co-counsel Legal Voice and Seattle Employment Law Partners, PLLC win case on behalf of lawyer denied job by religious group


Media Contacts:

Denise Diskin, QLaw Foundation of Washington, 206-452-9369

Jennifer Martinez, Legal Voice, 208-320-0596

Sara Amies, Seattle Employment Law Partners, PLLC, 206-899-5448


For Immediate Release

March 4, 2021


SEATTLE - Today, the Washington Supreme Court ruled in favor of Matt Woods, a Seattle lawyer and longtime Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission volunteer who was told not to apply for an attorney position in SUGM’s Open Door Legal Services program because of his sexual orientation. The Court affirmed the importance of Washington’s existing non-discrimination protections and that religious employers are not permitted to discriminate against employees who are not ministers. The Court sent the case back to the trial court to determine whether the facts support a finding that Mr. Woods’ role as a lawyer could be consistent with also serving as a minister.


The Union Gospel Mission’s anti-LGBTQ+ hiring policy, which prohibits employees from engaging in “homosexual behavior…and any activity that would have an appearance of evil” will no longer apply to all employees of religious institutions. Whether or not a religious institution is exempted from discrimination will come down to the responsibilities and duties of the position, and not on the identities carried by the employee. This decision has made it clear that religious employers do not have the unfettered right to discriminate against a group of people based on their belief systems.


“LGBTQ+ people exist in all workplaces, faith communities, and economic groups. We also disproportionately experience homelessness and poverty and need support from social services organizations like SUGM. We respect that many faith communities provide essential services to very vulnerable people, and we hope that this case represents a first step in ensuring that all employees in those faith communities are treated fairly,” says QLaw Foundation of Washington’s Executive Director, Denise Diskin. Ms. Diskin litigated the case along with co-counsel David Ward and Andrew Kashyap of Legal Voice, and Sara Amies of Seattle Employment Law Partners, PLLC .


In November 2016, Mr. Woods applied for a staff attorney position with Seattle Union Gospel Mission’s Open Door Legal Services program where he had volunteered throughout law school and after becoming a licensed attorney. Mr. Woods, a Christian, has dedicated his career to serving unhoused, poor, and marginalized people. At first, Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission had invited him to apply for the job – but when he disclosed his same-sex relationship, SUGM announced for the first time its internal policy prohibiting employees from engaging in “homosexual behavior … and any activity that would have an appearance of evil.” The Mission admitted in litigation that the policy was only available to employees on their first day of employment and does not post the policy on its website or job postings.


This lawsuit reflects the urgency of challenging religious exemptions and other justifications that would open the door to unconstrained discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community, targeting their dignity while ignoring their humanity. Not only does today’s decision provide more assurance and protections for LGBTQ+ community members who seek employment at religious institutions, but will also allow clients who seek social services from these institutions to be represented by community members that reflect their identities and lived experiences.


The case also represents another step on the road to stronger LGBTQ+ rights. Last summer, the Supreme Court of the United States made clear that employment discrimination against lesbian, gay and transgender people violates federal law. In this case, the Supreme Court of Washington has affirmed the importance of our state anti-discrimination law that makes discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression illegal, including in employment, housing, and public places.


“The Court’s check upon religious employers’ discriminatory actions is so important right now in light of the climate of violence, homophobia and racism that was exacerbated over the last four years,” states Andrew Kashyap of Legal Voice. ” But while we celebrate today, we must also acknowledge and address the continued discrimination that LGBTQ+ Washingtonians experience within every system, and how that discrimination compounds when intersected with other historically marginalized communities. This should be a moment of pause and reflection for all so we can begin to do the work necessary so all Washingtonians can thrive.”

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QLaw Foundation of Washington promotes the dignity and respect of LGBTQ+ Washingtonians within the legal system through advocacy, education, and legal assistance. QLaw Foundation provides free legal clinics, litigation, community-centered legal education, and coalition-building to support the legal rights of LGBTQ+ communities throughout Washington. More at www.qlawfoundation.org.


Legal Voice is a progressive feminist organization using the power of the law to make positive change for women, girls, and LGBTQ people in the Northwest. Legal Voice uses ground-breaking litigation, legislative advocacy, and community education to fight gender oppression and injustice. More at legalvoice.org.


Seattle Employment Law Partners, PLLC fights for employee’s rights and fairness in the workplace. We help employees experiencing discrimination, whistleblowers, and people wanting to understand their legal options in the workplace. We advise people starting and leaving jobs on negotiating offers, separation, and non-compete contracts. More at https://www.seaemplaw.com.



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