Two of the Supreme Court's conservatives said Monday that religious organizations should be fully exempt from nondiscrimination laws and free to hire only people who share their beliefs.
Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito made their views known as the court declined to take up a dispute over a Seattle religious nonprofit group’s refusal to hire an applicant who was in a same-sex relationship. They agreed the case was at a preliminary stage and not yet ripe for their review, but they said the court should confront the issue in a future case.
Writing for both of them, Alito strongly suggested how they would rule in such a dispute: “To force religious organizations to hire messengers and other personnel who do not share their religious views would undermine not only the autonomy of many religious organizations but also their continued viability.”
Churches and religious institutions have a right to employ only people who agree with their religious views, the court has held, provided that the employees at issue perform a ministerial function. That means imparting religious doctrine, for example, or carrying out other kinds of duties that a cleric would perform.
The Seattle case presented an invitation to consider whether a religious nonprofit organization can require all employees to hold the same religious beliefs, regardless of whether they perform a strictly ministerial function.
The case involved a Christian nonprofit group in Washington state that cares for the homeless, Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission. It rejected an application for a legal aid position because the lawyer seeking the job, Matthew Woods, said he was in a same-sex relationship. The mission’s employee handbook prohibits “homosexual behavior.”
Woods sued, claiming the organization violated a state constitutional provision that bans job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. A judge threw his suit out, saying small businesses and religious nonprofit groups were exempt from a state nondiscrimination law. But the Washington Supreme Court said the judge should reconsider whether Woods, acting as a lawyer, would actually perform a ministerial function.
The conservative Alliance Defending Freedom, representing the mission, urged the U.S. Supreme Court to say that the exemption to discrimination laws should be a broad one, allowing religious organizations to maintain a community of like-minded believers.
Woods urged the Supreme Court not to take the case and instead to let the Washington state courts sort out whether the job he applied for would qualify for a ministerial exception.
Thomas and Alito said the court should not shy away from a future dispute that directly raises the issue.
“The day may soon come when we must decide whether the autonomy guaranteed by the First Amendment protects religious organizations’ freedom to hire co-religionists without state or judicial interference,” Alito wrote.