It may seem like the only Supreme Court news coming out this week involves the confirmation hearings of Joe Biden’s nominee to replace the retiring Associate Justice Breyer, but there’s still some work being done in the background. One bit of work that won’t be taking place, however, involves a case that we’ve been watching as it’s percolated up through the system. The case is question is Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission v. Woods and it’s one of several that pit LBGTQ rights against the First Amendment Free Exercise clause. The Mission offers free services to homeless people in a variety of forms, including legal services when required. Matthew Woods is an attorney who volunteered for the mission for several years and applied for a job when a position opened in 2016. Woods is bisexual and was in a relationship with another man at the time. As a result, the Mission told him that his application would not be accepted. Woods sued after being told that the Mission’s “code of conduct excludes homosexual activity.”
A state trial court found in favor of the Mission, based on their religious freedom argument, and tossed the case. But on appeal, the state supreme court reversed the decision, allowing the case to move forward. That brings us to yesterday’s action in Washington. The Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal, allowing Woods’ case to proceed. Given the similarity of this case to others that are also being considered, it might wind up setting a notable precedent either way it ends. (Yahoo News)
The Supreme Court says it won’t review the case of a Seattle-based Christian organization that was sued after declining to hire a bisexual lawyer who applied for a job. A lower court let the case go forward, and the high court said Monday it wouldn’t intervene.
Two justices, Justice Samuel Alito and Justice Clarence Thomas, agreed with the decision not to hear the case at this stage but said that “the day may soon come” when the court needs to confront the issue the case presents.
The case the high court declined to hear involves Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission. In addition to providing food and shelter to the homeless the organization offers addiction recovery, job placement and legal services. In 2016 it was looking for an attorney to help staff its legal-aid clinic.
If you were expecting the current, conservative-leaning court to jump into this one with both feet, that’s not going to happen immediately. But that doesn’t mean they’re passing on the issue entirely. Note that Alito and Thoms concurred with the decision not to hear the appeal but wrote that “the day may soon come” when the subject would have to be addressed. It doesn’t take a detective to suspect that they might be referring to 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis, where web designer Lorie Smith was taken to court over her refusal to design wedding websites for gay couples. The Supreme Court will be hearing that case in the fall.
Each of these cases is unique in its own way, of course, as has been seen with the hit and miss results experience in baker Jack Phillips’ various trips to the court. I find the Mission’s case to appear a bit weak, at least on the surface. First of all, if their code of conduct is so strict about not allowing “homosexual activity,” why did they allow Woods to provide free legal services for years as a volunteer and only turn on him when he applied for a paid position for which he would seem to have been uniquely qualified?
Also, when a business or service (such as Lorie Smith’s case) refuses to provide a specific service to a couple that is intrinsically part of the wedding ceremony, they are citing their own religious freedom to not participate in those rites. It doesn’t sound as if Woods was providing any services to the homeless that would be specifically related to gay marriage or any other associated LGBTQ-related questions. He was offering legal counseling.
If the Mission’s argument is that they simply don’t allow anyone “engaging in homosexual activities” to be employed with them in any fashion, even if it has no impact on the Mission’s actual work, then we’re back to the question of why he was allowed to volunteer there. I wanted to cover all of this ahead of time because, as I already mentioned, we have the Lorie Smith case coming at us over the horizon. But these two cases may turn out to be quite different and produce different results.
Smith can at least try to make the argument as per Masterpiece that forcing her to design a website makes her a participant in the wedding services. (Frankly, even that is a weaker argument because the wedding cake is actually part of the entire rites of the day while the website is more promotional in nature.) But it doesn’t sound as if Woods would be an “active participant” in any religious services at the mission, nor could he inject himself into any such services beyond charitable contributions of his time to aid the homeless. Stick a bookmark in this one and we’ll revisit it in the fall. The debate over these cases has been quite heated and I don’t expect that to change.