Woods v. Seattle's Union Gospel Mission

Decision Date04 March 2021
Docket NumberNo. 96132-8,96132-8
Citation481 P.3d 1060
CourtWashington Supreme Court
Parties Matthew S. WOODS, an individual, Appellant, v. SEATTLE'S UNION GOSPEL MISSION, a Washington nonprofit, Respondent.

Jennifer Denise Diskin, QLaw Foundation of Washington, 101 Yesler Way Ste. 300, Seattle, WA, 98104-2552, Sara B. Amies, Seattle Employment Law Group, PLLC, 705 2nd Ave. Ste. 1200, Seattle, WA, 98104-1798, Andrew J.D. Kashyap, Attorney at Law, 907 Pine St., Suite 500, Seattle, WA, 98101-1818, for Appellant.

Nathaniel Lee Taylor, Abigail Jane St. Hilaire, Ellis Li & McKinstry PLLC, 1700 Seventh Ave. Ste. 1810, Seattle, WA, 98101, for Respondent.

Steven Timothy Mcfarland, World Vision, 300 I St. NE, Washington, DC, 20002-4342, Kimberlee Wood Colby, Christian Legal Society, 8001 Braddock Road Suite 302, Springfield, VA, 22151, for Amicus Curiae on behalf of Assoc. of Christian Schools International, Agudath Israel, Bellevue Christian School, Christian Legal Society, Crista Ministries, Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of Southern Baptist, General Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Nat'l Assoc. of Evangelicals, Northshore Christian Academy, Northwest University, Seattle Christian School, Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, and World Vision, Inc.

Eric Evan Johnson, Sherman & Howard LLC, 633 Seventeenth St. Ste. 3000, Denver, CO, 80202-3622, Stuart J. Lark, Sherman & Howard LLC, 90 South Cascade Avenue, Suite 1500, Colorado, CO, 80903, for Amicus Curiae on behalf of Christian Colleges & Universities, Samaritan's Purse, Christian Care Ministry, Orchard Alliance, Mount Hermon Association, Oc International, The Navigators, and Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

Jeffrey Lowell Needle, Attorney at Law, 705 2nd Ave. Ste. 1050, Seattle, WA, 98104-1759, Jesse Andrew Wing, MacDonald Hoague & Bayless, 705 2nd Ave. Ste. 1500, Seattle, WA, 98104-1745, for Amicus Curiae on behalf of Washington Employment Lawyers Association.

Isaac Ruiz, Ruiz & Smart PLLC, 1200 Fifth Avenue, Suite 1220, Seattle, WA, 98101, Gabriel Ernest Verdugo, Keller Rohrback LLP, 1201 3rd Ave. Ste. 3200, Seattle, WA, 98101-3052, for Amicus Curiae on behalf of Center for Justice, Entre Hermonas, Gender Justice League, Greater Seattle Business Association, Ingersoll Gender Center, Lavender Rights Project, and Legal Counsel for Youth and Children.

Kristen Kellie Waggoner, Alliance Defending Freedom, 15100 N. 90th St., Scottsdale, AZ, 85260, for Amicus Curiae on behalf of Citygate Network.

David Knox Dewolf, Albrecht Law PLLC, 5105 E. Third Avenue, Suite 101, Spokane Valley, WA, 99212, for Amicus Curiae on behalf of Legal Educators.

George M. Ahrend, Ahrend Law Firm PLLC, 457 1st Ave. NW, PO Box 816, Ephrata, WA, 98823-0816, for Amicus Curiae on behalf of American Association of Christian Schools, Assoc. for Biblical Higher Education In Canada and the US, Assoc. of Classical Christian Schools

Lisa Nowlin, ACLU of Washington, PO Box 2728, Seattle, WA, 98111-2728, for Amicus Curiae on behalf of ACLU of Washington.

Lindsey Kaley, Rose Saxe, ACLU Foundation, 125 Broad Street, 18th Floor, New York, NY, 10004, Daniel Mach, ACLU Foundation, 915 15th Street NW, Washington, DC, 20005, for Amicus Curiae on behalf of ACLU.


¶ 1 We begin with the proposition that the legislature is entitled to legislate. WASH. CONST. art. II, § 1. It is entitled to make distinctions and to carve out exceptions in its assessments of proper public policy, within the constraints of the state and federal constitutions. See , e.g. , WASH. CONST. art. I, § 12. One constraint on legislative power is that it may not treat differently persons who are similarly situated unless a rational basis exists to do so and that it may not give persons immunity or privilege without a reasonable basis when a fundamental right is at stake. Id .; U.S. CONST. amend. XIV.

¶ 2 The issue in this case is whether the legislature extended a privilege or immunity to religious and other nonprofit, secular employers and whether, in providing the privilege or immunity, the legislature affected a fundamental right without a reasonable basis for doing so. Lawmakers enacted Washington's Law Against Discrimination (WLAD), ch. 49.60 RCW, to protect citizens from discrimination in employment, and exempts religious nonprofits from the definition of "employer." RCW 49.60.040(11). In enacting WLAD, the legislature created a statutory right for employees to be free from discrimination in the workplace while allowing employers to retain their constitutional right, as constrained by state and federal case law, to choose workers who reflect the employers’ beliefs when hiring ministers. Consequently, we must balance under law these competing interests, and we look to both our state and federal constitutions for guidance—specifically article I, section 12 ; article I, section 11; the First Amendment; and, the United States Supreme Court decision in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru , ––– U.S. ––––, 140 S. Ct. 2049, 207 L. Ed. 2d 870 (2020).

¶ 3 Here, Matthew Woods brought an employment discrimination action against Seattle's Union Gospel Mission (SUGM). At trial, SUGM successfully moved for summary judgment pursuant to RCW 49.60.040(11) ’s religious employer exemption. Woods appealed to this court, contesting the constitutionality of the statute. SUGM now argues that RCW 49.60.040(11) ’s exemption applies to its hiring decisions because its employees are expected to minister to their clients. Under Our Lady of Guadalupe , a plaintiff's employment discrimination claim must yield in a few limited circumstances, including where the employee in question is a minister. Whether ministerial responsibilities and functions discussed in Our Lady of Guadalupe are present in Woods’ case was not decided below.

¶ 4 For the following reasons, we hold that RCW 49.60.040(11) does not violate article I, section 12 on its face but may be constitutionally invalid as applied to Woods. Accordingly, we reverse and remand the case to the trial court to determine whether SUGM meets the ministerial exception.


¶ 5 SUGM is a nonprofit, evangelical Christian organization providing services to Seattle's unsheltered homeless population. In 1999, SUGM opened its legal aid clinic, Open Door Legal Services (ODLS), to address its guests’ many legal issues and facilitate the SUGM's gospel rescue work.

¶ 6 Woods, a professed Christian, signed SUGM's statement of faith when he began volunteering at the ODLS clinic as a law student. Later, as a lawyer, Woods inquired about the ODLS staff attorney position that became available in October 2016, disclosing that he was in a same-sex relationship. SUGM informed Woods that it was contrary to biblical teaching for him to engage in a same-sex relationship. Woods challenged this interpretation and applied for the position. The ODLS director notified Woods there would be no change to its policy. SUGM did not hire Woods for the staff attorney position.

¶ 7 In November 2017, Woods filed a complaint against SUGM, alleging it had violated his right to be free from discriminatory employment under WLAD. Clerk's Papers (CP) at 1-7. Woods claimed that RCW 49.60.040(11) ’s exemption is unconstitutional as applied to him because the staff attorney job duties were "wholly unrelated to [SUGM's] religious practices or activities." CP at 6. SUGM argued that the religious exemption to WLAD applied under RCW 49.60.040(11), which excludes religious and sectarian nonprofit organizations from the definition of "employer." SUGM successfully moved for summary judgment, and Woods sought direct review, which this court granted.


Standard of review

¶ 8 At issue is whether RCW 49.60.040(11) validly exempts SUGM from WLAD provisions under the facts of this case. This court reviews questions of statutory interpretation and constitutionality de novo. State v. Evergreen Freedom Found. , 192 Wash.2d 782, 789, 432 P.3d 805, cert. denied , ––– U.S. ––––, 139 S. Ct. 2647, 204 L.Ed.2d 284 (2019). Our primary objective in interpreting a statute is to ascertain and give effect to the legislature's intent as manifested by the statute's language. See In re Marriage of Schneider , 173 Wash.2d 353, 363, 268 P.3d 215 (2011). This court also reviews summary judgment de novo. Wash. Educ. Ass'n v. Dep't of Ret. Sys. , 181 Wash.2d 233, 241, 332 P.3d 439 (2014).


¶ 9 "WLAD is a regulatory law enacted under the legislature's police power to promote the health, peace, safety, and general welfare of the people of Washington." Ockletree v. Franciscan Health Sys. , 179 Wash.2d 769, 773 n.2, 317 P.3d 1009 (2014) (plurality opinion) (citing RCW 49.60.010 ). Enacted in 1949, WLAD was promulgated with the "purpose of ending discrimination by employers ‘on the basis of race, creed, color, or national origin.’ " Id . at 773, 317 P.3d 1009 (quoting Griffin v. Eller , 130 Wash.2d 58, 63, 922 P.2d 788 (1996) ). The legislature has expanded WLAD to bar discrimination on the basis of age, sex, sexual orientation, and disability, and to incorporate a private right of action for employees and persons who use public accommodations. Id . (citing RCW 49.60.040 ).

¶ 10 As originally enacted, WLAD exempted from the definition of "employer" "any religious, charitable, educational, social or fraternal association or corporation, not organized for private profit." LAWS OF 1949, ch. 183, § 3(b). 1 The legislature rewrote WLAD's definition of "employer" in 1957 to include secular nonprofit organizations, exempting only small employers and religious nonprofits. LAWS OF 1957, ch. 37, § 4. That definition is currently found in RCW 49.60.040(11), which provides, " ‘Employer’ includes any person acting in the interest of an employer, directly or indirectly, who employs eight or more persons, and does not include any religious or sectarian organization not...

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7 cases
  • Bell v. Boeing Co.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Western District of Washington
    • April 20, 2022
    ...presence of any sensory, mental, or physical disability[.]" Wash. Rev. Code § 49.60.010 ; see also Woods v. Seattle's Union Gospel Mission , 197 Wash.2d 231, 481 P.3d 1060, 1063–64 (2021). The statute accordingly recognizes a "right to obtain and hold employment without discrimination[.]" W......
  • Stout v. Felix
    • United States
    • Washington Supreme Court
    • August 26, 2021
    ...to arise in any context, but that is intentional because "[f]acial claims are generally disfavored." Woods v. Seattle's Union Gospel Mission , 197 Wash.2d 231, 240, 481 P.3d 1060 (2021). However, in the context of the citizen complaint rule, the ordinary rules of constitutional avoidance do......
  • McMahon v. World Vision, Inc.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Western District of Washington
    • November 28, 2023
    ... ... (Dkt. # ... 28) ¶ 53), “whose mission is to follow our Lord ... and Savior Jesus Christ in ... ministry dedicated to sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ, ... primarily through humanitarian ... Amendment's ministerial exception. See Woods v ... Seattle's Union Gospel Mission , 481 P.3d ... ...
  • Smith v. Legacy Partners Inc.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Western District of Washington
    • May 20, 2022
    ... ... RCW 49.60.010; ... see also Woods v. Seattle's Union Gospel ... Mission, 197 Wash.2d ... ...
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1 books & journal articles
    • United States
    • Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy Vol. 45 No. 1, January 2022
    • January 1, 2022
    ...in part under the ministerial exception. (65.) Id. (citation omitted). (66.) Id. at 9. (67.) Woods v. Seattle's Union Gospel Mission, 481 P.3d 1060 (Wash. (68.) This is unsurprising considering the Washington Supreme Court's history of mangling religious liberty cases. See, e.g., Case Comme......

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