PARACHURCH ORGANIZATION RELIGIOUS LIBERTY BATTLES

Churches and their immediate offspring for the most part won their freedom from government control of their employment relationships.  Our Lady of Guadalupe School v Morrissey-Berru, ___ US ___, 140 S. Ct. 2049, 207 L. Ed. 2d 870 (2020) laid to rest the “confusion” that certain courts seemed to have about the scope of the Ministerial Exception.  Basically, faculty at church schools will rarely be considered outside of the scope of the Ministerial Exception.  However, religious non-profit organizations are now the targets of those that believe that religious beliefs must be abandoned as a lesser civil right deserving of less protection.

In Woods v Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission, Slip Op. (Wash. En Banc, 2021), the parachurch organization focused on the needs of the homeless.  As part of that outreach, the organization offered “legal aid” services.  Plaintiff signed a statement of faith as a law school intern and then later sought employment when a staff attorney position opened.  However, Plaintiff alleged he was not hired because he disclosed he was in a same sex relationship.  The State of Washington’s employment discrimination statute exempted religious nonprofit organizations from the definition of “employer.”  However, the clarity of the statutory language, though it was not held unconstitutional on its face, was not enough to decide whether the statute applied to the Plaintiff.  The appellate court reversed and remanded the case for a determination whether the Ministerial Exception applied to the position of “legal aid” lawyer in a religious nonprofit providing services to the homeless.

Parachurch organizations may have to withdraw from “secular” service provision and abolish those employment relationships, at least in some states, to avoid being forced to accommodate employee actions that are contrary to a morals clause or other similar government or court imposed employment policy.  Until religious beliefs are respected as constitutionally protected on an equal level with other constitutional rights, there will be jurists that will demand second-class status for religious believers.  The alternative would be for parachurch organizations to place at risk their donor base and their religious beliefs or messages to comply.

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