Clueless in Seattle: Gay lawyer's lawsuit prompts no serious questions for reporters

Union Gospel Mission is probably Seattle’s most venerable charity. Starting with the Great Depression, it has an 85-year history with the Emerald City especially in terms of its help with the homeless and the addicted.

Also known as UGM, the mission has done the dirty week of patrolling the streets, helping clear homeless encampments and serving a city where homelessness grew by 7.3 percent last year. Seattle is third in the nation (behind New York and Los Angeles) in numbers of homeless even though it’s the 20th largest city in the country.

But no one seemed to figure out until recently that the “Gospel” in Union Gospel Mission meant the organization may have religious and moral standards for its employees. That is, until a gay lawyer tried to get a job there.

I’ll start with the Seattle Times account of what happened next, partly because it’s fairly long and it’s written by Christine Willmsen, who was one of the young reporters I oversaw as city editor of the Daily Times in Farmington, N.M. more than 20 years ago.

A bisexual Christian man is suing Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission after it refused to hire him because of his sexual orientation.
Union Gospel Mission, which has provided addiction recovery, one-on-one counseling, emergency shelter and legal support services for homeless people in King County since 1932, says employees must live by a “Biblical moral code.”
When a staff attorney position opened in October 2016 for the nonprofit, religion-based organization, mission volunteer Matthew Woods was encouraged to apply, according to the lawsuit filed Thursday in King County Superior Court.
But as he started the application process, he disclosed he was in a same-sex relationship. David Mace, Union Gospel Mission’s managing attorney, told Woods, “sorry you won’t be able to apply,” because the Employee Code of Conduct prohibits homosexuality, the lawsuit says.

But Woods didn’t give up, deciding that a state law prohibiting job discrimination because of sexual orientation was more than enough ground to base a lawsuit on. explained how Union Gospel’s requirements for the job automatically excluded him.

Union Gospel Mission requires all staff members to sign onto certain conduct requirements, which it describes as a "Biblical moral code." It's set forth in an internal document that emailed to Woods in response to his interest in the job.
Some of the objectionable behavior listed in Union Gospel Mission's moral code -- "any activity that would have an appearance of evil" -- includes "illegal behavior," "extra-marital affairs" and "drunkenness." Also: "sex outside of marriage" and the disqualifier for Woods, "homosexual behavior."
"That (homosexuality and evil) would be associated in any way was really hard to hear," Woods said.
Woods submitted a job application, anyway. He met the qualifications listed in the call for applications and wrote a cover letter asking Union Gospel Mission to change its policy for staff members…
Woods says he's not seeking money. He knows Union Gospel Mission always needs more money to fulfill their services. But he hopes they can change their policy, at least for staffers who perform nonreligious services.

The Stranger, an alternative weekly, started out with a description on how vital Union Gospel (UGM) has been in helping the city cope with its enormous homeless population. It also interviewed the Rev. Tony Pallas, chief program officer for UGM, on why the organization doesn’t think Woods has a chance in court.

How does this not conflict with Washington's anti-discrimination laws?
"The Supreme Court has ruled that it's not," Pallas said. "We're classified as a church."
Lawyers representing Woods in court, Denise Diskin and Sara Amies, said they're suing UGM under state law because UGM should be subject to the same rules as any other legal aid provider—and because they believe they'll be more likely to make a difference in state courts.

One point made in several of these stories was a statistic that 40 percent of all homeless youth are gay or transgender which is why Woods felt he would have been a good pick as a staff member. However, UGM is cutting its youth programs for lack of funds.

So many of these stories identified Woods as Christian, but no one specified which church he attends or anything about a religious background.

Only Lilly Fowler, a Godbeat pro most recently with Religion & Ethics Newsweekly before she moved across the country to write for the Seattle news website, got close to what he may mean:

“Leading a Christian life,” he explained, means leading a life that “is devoted to social justice, racial justice, economic justice.”

Sounds a bit vague to me. If UGM truly is classified as a church, my guess is that even the best lawyers won’t be able to touch them. Does anyone remember that 9-0 vote at the U.S. Supreme Court in the Hosanna-Tabor case establishing that religious ministries have the right to let their doctrines affect how they hire and fire employees??

One interesting tidbit at the end of the Seattle Times piece got my attention.

The city of Seattle cut its winter shelter funding for 2018 because of its employment practices, (UGM President Jeff) Lilley said. He couldn’t recall how much it was, but said it was small in comparison to gifts and donations.
Lilley said Union Gospel Mission serves everyone, including the LGBTQ homeless population.

So, the city has already gone after UGM over this issue? UGM has been around for decades and the city only now decided the charity was being anti-LGBTQ? And in a time when there’s a desperate need for every hand on deck to help with the homeless, the city is going after the major charity in town that does the most with that group? There’s another story there.

Plus, the lawyer says he doesn't want to punish UGM financially but merely get it to change its employment standards? What does he think suing them is going to do? UGM already laid off about a dozen employees this summer for lack of funds. 

Several things aren't adding up here. The media covering this need to do a lot more than simply cover a press conference by the plaintiff and put in the obligatory phone call to UGM. Does anyone at the mission remember this man? If Woods graduated with a law degree in 2014 from the University of Washington, why did he spend his next three years as an intern and volunteer for UGM? Most recent law grads move on to actual jobs. 

Someone, somewhere, please start asking these questions. 

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