When Washington Statute and The Constitution (Somewhat) Collide

When Washington Statute and The Constitution (Somewhat) Collide

In a recent ruling, the Washington state Supreme Court reversed a lower court’s decision regarding legal exemptions for religious employers. This article discusses the ruling in the case, Woods v. Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission..i

Seattle Union Gospel Mission (SUGM), a non-profit religious organization, provides legal services to unsheltered homeless persons through Open Door Legal Services (ODLS). In October 2016, Woods, who volunteered as a law student, disclosed he was in a same-sex relationship while inquiring about an ODLS staff attorney position. SUGM informed Woods it was contrary to biblical teaching for him to engage in a same-sex relationship. Woods disagreed with SUGM’s biblical interpretation and challenged this interpretation by applying for the position. SUGM did not hire Woods for the staff attorney position.

Title 49 of the Revised Code of Washington (RCW) governs labor regulations. RCW 49.60.040(11) defines “employer” as follows: “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 organized for private profit. Woods filed a complaint against SUGM, alleging it had violated his right to be free from discriminatory employment under the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD). He claimed the RCW 49.60.040(11) exemption was unconstitutional as applied to him, because the staff attorney job duties were wholly unrelated to SUGM’s religious practices or activities. SUGM argued the religious exemption to WLAD applied under RCW 49.60.040(11), which excluded religious and sectarian nonprofit organizations from the definition of “employer.” SUGM prevailed on summary judgment and Woods sought direct review, which the Washington Supreme Court granted.

The Court focused on whether RCW 49.60.040(11) validly exempted SUGM from WLAD provisions, thus violating Article I, Section 12 of the Washington State Constitution under the facts of the case. A two-pronged test was utilized to determine the constitutionality of the religious employer exemption under Article I, Section 12: (1) whether RCW 49.60.040(11) granted a privilege or immunity implicating a fundamental right and (2) if a privilege or immunity was granted, whether the distinction was based on reasonable grounds.

The Court realized two fundamental rights – the right to an individual’s sexual orientation and the right to marry. The Court relied on both Washington law and federal law to conclude the fundamental right to marry included same-sex couples and was protected by due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. As such, the first prong of the test was satisfied. Proceeding to the second prong of the test, the Court analyzed the language of RCW 49.60.040(11) itself to discern the meaning of the statute. The language demonstrated the legislature plainly intended to include the exemption in WLAD. The Court noted the critically important distinction between religious and secular nonprofits in Washington case law: religious organizations have the right to religious liberty. Additionally, the United States Supreme Court had upheld the exemption for religious organizations from federal discrimination suits to avoid state interference with religious freedoms.

The Washington Supreme Court held reasonable grounds existed for WLAD to distinguish religious and secular nonprofits. However, although it concluded reasonable grounds exist to RCW 49.60.040(11) as a matter of facial constitutionality, it found the exemption may still be unconstitutional as applied to Woods.

Whether a person is a minister rests on a host of factors, some of which may or not be present in every case. The US Court found, “Ultimately, what matters ‘is what an employee does.’” Here, Mr. Woods was attempting to become a staff attorney, not a minister. SUGM argued Woods would be fulfilling the duties of a minister, as he would be required to spread the Christian values and beliefs held by SUGM to clients when proper to do so. The Washington Supreme Court did not weigh in on whether Mr. Woods was or was not a minister. The case was sent back for a trier of fact to determine Woods’s title, and whether the exemption would apply in his specific case.


Mr. Woods presented a case where his fundamental rights were being infringed upon – his right to sexual orientation as manifested as a decision to marry. The Court recognized the importance of these rights and overturned the trial court’s decision of dismissal.

i Woods v. Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission, No. 96132-8, 2021 WL 821959 (Wash. Mar. 4, 2021)

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