Seattle Homeless Ministry Stands Up for Religious Freedom, Asks Supreme Court for Justice

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Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission has been serving the homeless and needy of its community for nearly 90 years. But now, the Washington Supreme Court has given it the Hobson’s choice of changing its religious beliefs or closing its doors. 

“[O]ur beliefs are everything to us,” Scott Chin, president of Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission, says, adding that it is “unimaginable that we would change our beliefs just so that we could continue operating.” 

In 2017, Matthew Woods applied for a lawyer position with the organization. The mission requires all of its employees to hold and live by the ministry’s Christian beliefs, but Woods was open about the fact that he does not profess Christianity. Woods sued the homeless ministry after he was not hired for the job.

The Washington Supreme Court ruled against the ministry, but now Chin is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to take up his case and defend the religious freedom the organization has enjoyed for decades. 

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“We’re hopeful that the U.S. Supreme Court will reverse the Washington Supreme Court and adopt the rule that is prevalent in many other circuits around the country,” says Jake Warner, an attorney with the Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom. 

Chin and Warner join “The Daily Signal Podcast” to explain why Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission is fighting for its right to the free exercise of religion. 

Also on today’s show, we read your letters to the editor and share a good news story about a couple who adopted two sets of twins on the same day. 

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript. 

Virginia Allen: Increasingly across America, we see religious liberty coming under attack and brave men and women are taking a stand to defend our First Amendment rights. Here with me to talk about one such situation is Scott Chin, the president of Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission. And also joining us is Jake Warner, an attorney at the Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom. Gentlemen, thank you both so much for being here.

Scott Chin: Virginia, thanks for having us.

Allen: Scott, in 2019, you became the president of Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission, but the organization has actually been around for almost 90 years. Tell me a little bit about the work that you-all do.

Chin: Yeah, so, we are 89 years old and Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission, we exist to love and serve and share the Gospel with our homeless neighbors. We do that by providing food and shelter, addiction recovery services, job placement services, and legal services. And like you mentioned, Virginia, we have been blessed to have served the greater Seattle community for 89 amazing years.

Allen: It’s so exciting. That’s so cool to be able to say that. What a gift. So, how many people do you-all serve in your recovery program every year?

Chin: Yeah. Literally, we serve thousands of people every year. It’s been hard to track a little bit with COVID, but pre-COVID, we would serve almost a million meals a year, Virginia.

Allen: That’s incredible. How big of an issue is homelessness in Seattle?

Chin: Homelessness, as many know, is a huge issue across the nation, but Seattle is on a top five list that no city wants to be on. And so, we are 16th in the nation population-wise, but we are in the top five for the number of homeless individuals on the streets every evening. So it is a huge issue here in Seattle.

Allen: And how many programs are taking place in your city? How much is the government doing to tackle homelessness? And then, how much really falls on nonprofits like yourself to really be providing the resources for these folks to get off the streets?

Chin: Yeah. Well, it is a comprehensive, multifaceted approach to homelessness, for sure. There is city, there’s county efforts, there’s other nonprofits.

But I will say, what’s most striking—and I think, again, as a member who lives in King County, which is the county that Seattle’s in, there is a growing frustration with the amount of resources spent but the lack of impact, right?

A lot of cities have had 10-year plans to eliminate homelessness and all of them have failed. And so taxpayers are getting frustrated.

One of the things that we find, though, is that the reason why we have such strong support in the community is because of our impact. Ourselves and a few other faith-based providers, our results are dramatically more important and effective. And when you think about a city that’s hungry for impact—and Virginia, in all humility, our programs are two, if not three times more effective than our other secular service providers.

Allen: Why do you think that is?

Chin: Well, as a follower of Jesus, I like it when I get that question, because to be honest, the only difference is our faith, is Jesus, is our beliefs.

If you look at other secular service providers and our programs, we have relapse prevention classes, they have relapse prevention classes. But what you won’t find in a separate provider is a Christian beliefs class like we have.

And I’ll tell you, Virginia, there’s nothing magical about a sandwich—trust me, I’ve made plenty and our sandwiches are quite average. But it is the power of the life-changing Jesus Christ working in and through us. That’s what makes the biggest difference.

Allen: Your faith is, obviously, it’s so foundational to the work that you-all do as an organization. And so, part of getting to really live out your mission—it’s even in your name—is sharing the Gospel. In order to accomplish that work, you actually require that certain staff positions be filled by individuals who are believers, who call Jesus Christ their lord and savior.

And you had an individual apply to work at Seattle, at your organization, the Union Gospel Mission, who was, actually, open about the fact that not only were they not a Christian, but they actually opposed the Christian faith. And you had a whole situation ensue from that. Just tell us a little bit about that situation and how then the lawsuit process started here.

Chin: Sure. So, at Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission, actually, everyone needs to share our core religious beliefs because … if you look at our bylaws, Virginia, our main purpose is to share the Gospel, right?

So given that our main purpose is to share the Gospel, our religious beliefs mean everything to us. Whether it’s my role, whether it’s one of our chaplain roles, whether it’s one of our volunteer managers, whether it’s someone in our legal ministry.

What happened was an individual a few years ago applied for one of the roles in our legal ministry and our legal clinic. And he made it clear on his job application, as you pointed out, that he disagreed with our religious beliefs, not active in a local church. And that, in fact, he wanted us to change our beliefs.

Well, understandably, we selected a different candidate, someone who did share our religious beliefs, and then later he sued the mission.

Allen: Scott, I think it’s really wild to think that you received this kind of pushback. It seems that it is almost surprising that someone would apply to work at an organization that is so obviously upfront about your Christian faith. So, what happened after that lawsuit was filed? And what year was … that lawsuit filed?

Chin: This began in 2017.

Allen: OK.

Chin: And to bring it back up to today, the Washington State Supreme Court earlier this year has ruled and has said that the Constitution does not protect our ability to hire someone who shares our beliefs. Well, again, as an organization that’s all about the Gospel, our beliefs mean everything to us. So not surprisingly we’ve asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear our case.

Allen: So Jake, let me go ahead and pull you in here. You are helping to represent Scott in this case. You’re an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom. So, Scott tells this individual that he can’t hire them because of their faith. A lawsuit is filed and the Washington State Supreme Court essentially tells Scott and his organization, “No, you have to hire someone, even if their beliefs don’t align with yours.” And as Scott mentioned, now you’re asking the Supreme Court to take up this case. Talk a little bit about where things stand right now.

Jake Warner: Sure. The First Amendment says that the government can’t punish a religious organization for hiring only those who share their beliefs. And that’s the critical issue in this case. Courts all around the country—in fact, there are six federal circuit courts who have already upheld this principle and many state courts do the same thing. In fact, our federal laws protect this principle and many executive orders do the very same thing.

So this is something that’s deeply rooted in American law, that the government can’t interfere with the religious decisions of religious organizations, yet that’s exactly what the Washington State Supreme Court did in its ruling, saying, “The state could punish the mission for declining to hire someone who doesn’t agree with its religious lifestyle requirements, who applied, trying to change the missions, beliefs, and sought to undermine the ministry of the mission.”

And so we’ve asked the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on this critical issue, “Does the government have the power to punish religious organizations for living and operating consistently with their faith in this way?” And we’re hopeful that the U.S. Supreme Court will reverse the Washington Supreme Court and adopt the rule that is prevalent in many other circuits around the country.

Allen: And I know that that request to the Supreme Court, you-all just made that recently. What is the timeline that we’re looking at here? Do we know how quickly the Supreme Court will make a decision on whether they’re going to take Scott’s case?

Warner: We don’t know for sure, but … we could hear something as early as later this fall or perhaps even early next year, but it will be sometime in the coming months where we’ll hear whether the U.S. Supreme Court will hear the mission’s case.

Allen: And Scott, I know this is something that really affects you personally. And you say that ultimately what the Washington Supreme Court did in their ruling was really just give you two options and neither were very good options. Explain those.

Chin: Yeah. Well, they’ve really not given us a choice, right? Because the two options, speaking with my board of directors, on one hand, we could continue—if we’re willing to change our beliefs. Well, our beliefs are everything to us. So, the auspice of that is heartbreaking. It’s unimaginable that we would change our beliefs just so that we could continue operating.

The other, I guess, theoretical option is, well, if we lose, then we would stop serving the community. And I think about the thousands, Virginia, the thousands of people that we have helped—our homeless neighbors—turn their lives around, get off the streets, literally go from loss to found. The idea of shutting our doors is also just unimaginable. So it really isn’t a choice.

Allen: You mentioned that work that you-all do. I had the privilege of hearing you speak before, Scott, and it was really inspiring to hear about something that you-all do called Search and Rescue. Talk a little bit about that.

Chin: Yeah. We have several ministries at Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission, but one of them is called Search and Rescue. And so, instead of waiting for our homeless neighbors to come through our different ministry locations, we go to them.

So 365 days a year in the snow, in the sleet, in the rain, we go out all across the city and we are out there in vans. And in each of these vans on the side of the vans are words like “hope” and “love.” Because to be honest, that is in short supply on the street. And inside these vans are caring volunteers. And in the back there’s sandwiches, there’s a warm cup of cocoa, a fresh pair of socks, maybe a warm blanket, especially as we start approaching these winter months.

That’s what Search and Rescue is because, in essence, we live out every day. We want to see people, their lives restored. And we’re so passionate about that. We go every night and in the dark places, in the wet places, but I’ll tell you, Virginia, it’s worth it.

Allen: Could you maybe share with us a story of one or two individuals that you-all have connected with one of those nights during the Search and Rescue operations and actually worked with and journeyed with and seen their life transformed?

Chin: Yeah. It actually happened a month after I started as president just a couple of years ago. And this gentleman, he had so many life tragedies happen to him. And one night it got so bad, he just walked out onto one of our freeways, sat there, hoping that a car would take his life, but somehow, some way, he kept going one day after the other.

Well, we encountered him one evening on Search and Rescue. And as they say, “The rest is history.” He came into one of our programs—we have a yearlong residential recovery program. He graduated and now I am honored to call him a brother in Christ. And he serves on that same Search and Rescue team.

Allen: That’s just incredible. Those are the stories you love to hear. And I can only imagine those are the stories that keep you getting up day after day and doing what you’re doing, even though it’s such hard work and I’m sure so challenging. Wow. What an amazing thing to see someone’s life totally transformed right before your eyes.

Chin: Yeah. And to be honest, that’s why it’s worth fighting for. When you think about the life transformation that happens every day at the mission, literally many miracles are happening. We have got to keep going. … And Virginia, we’re good, we’re good. We’re really good at what we do. We just need the freedom to do it.

Allen: Yeah. And Jake, like Scott says, “They just need the freedom to do it.” I think so many organizations across the country feel that same way, they want that freedom to be able to fully execute the missions that they have. What the Supreme Court in Washington state said, really telling Scott, “OK, you either have to change your beliefs or you can’t operate,” what are the implications for other faith-based organizations in Washington state and gosh, maybe even across America?

Warner: It has huge implications for other religious organizations in Washington state. As a result of this order, many religious organizations are going to be put to a choice, either stick to their faith and operate consistently with that faith or shut down and not fulfill the calling that God has given them to serve the people in their community. And that’s an unconscionable choice.

I think it’s important to highlight the value that religious organizations like the mission bring to our country. According to a recent study, organizations like the mission contribute over $1.2 trillion of socioeconomic value to our nation’s society. And that’s a big deal. And for the government to come in and say that you can’t continue doing this good work, unless you change your beliefs, that’s wrong. And the U.S. Supreme Court needs to say so. And that’s why we’re hopeful that the courts are going to take up this case later this fall.

Allen: Yeah. And how optimistic are you that they will take the case? I know many Americans, including myself, were surprised when we saw the Supreme court choose not to take up Barronelle Stutzman’s case, a case that you-all represented her. So, do you think that we’re going to see the Supreme Court actually say, “Yes, we will take this case”?

Warner: I believe we will. And the reason I say that is that this case cuts right to the heart of religious autonomy. And that’s a principle that the U.S. Supreme Court has been especially attentive to in recent years, starting back with the Hosanna-Tabor decision about a decade ago and then most recently with the Our Lady of Guadalupe case. The U.S. Supreme Court is very concerned about government overreach into the religious decisions of religious organizations. And this is just the next case in line of precedence.

Allen: Yeah. Scott, what is the significance for you? What is really at stake here? If the Supreme Court doesn’t take up your case, what are you looking at?

Chin: Well, we would certainly have to consider our options, but I will say, and this is heartbreaking, I do know there would be so many people not served on the streets. And when you think every night, you hear the reports around homelessness, that’s devastating. So we are putting it all—to be honest, I pray about it every day and probably twice on Sundays, but that’s what’s at stake.

Allen: Yeah. Jake, for all Americans … no matter if you’re a Christian, a Muslim, an atheist, why is this a case that we should all care about?

Warner: Yeah. Like I said earlier, this is a case that strikes right at the heart of religious freedom and religious freedom is something that every American gets to enjoy. And what we’ve seen recently is a lot of government overreach into this critical space. Governments are becoming more and more eager to interfere with the religious decisions of religious organizations.

And the principle that we’re advocating for here is not only going to protect ministries, like the Christian ministries, like the mission, but it applies to protect people of all faiths, because they’re going to be facing the same predicament that Scott and his friends at the mission are facing, unless the U.S. Supreme court steps in here.

Allen: Yeah. Scott, I think when so many people hear your story, their first question is going to be, “How can I help? How can I support?” Are there ways that Americans can be supporting you right now?

Chin: Yeah. Well, I’d say two main ways. First is prayer, right? We are all about sharing the Gospel and we serve a very big God. So I would just enlist followers of Jesus all across the nation that might be hearing this to pray. And then second, stand up for religious freedom. And that looks differently in different states and the different situations.

But, as this case unfolded, it was a really easy decision because of what’s at stake. But honestly, it has helped to remind me how important it is to take a stand. Because if we don’t take a stand, we might wake up one day in a place that no one wants to be.

Allen: Gentlemen, thank you both so much. I really, really appreciate your time and you coming on to break down the details of this case and all of the best to you. We look forward to hopefully having you back on to talk about this case and hopefully a positive outcome.

Chin: Awesome. Thank you so much, Virginia, for having us.

Warner: Thank you.

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