The Seattle Union Gospel Mission is one of the few non-profit organizations in Seattle providing both shelter beds and civil legal aid to the homeless population it serves. The City of Seattle worked with the organization, for example, to clear The Jungle—asking UGM to provide outreach to the people displaced by the city's sweep.
But the UGM is also classified as a religious organization. And, according to a lawsuit filed in King County Superior Court this morning, it refused to hire lawyer and former UGM intern Matthew Woods, 31, because of his sexual orientation.
Woods, who graduated from the University of Washington School of Law in 2014, is now a lawyer with the Northwest Justice Project. He identifies as bisexual and Christian. In 2012, he worked as an intern with UGM's legal clinic, Open Door Legal Services (ODLS), and volunteered for the program through 2015.
In October of last year, a staff attorney position opened up at the clinic, and Woods says he wrote to ODLS's director, David Mace, to express interest in the position. He also disclosed that he was dating a man. Woods did this because UGM's code of conduct, the lawsuit claims, includes a statement that Seattle UGM members are "expected to live by a Biblical moral code that excludes ... homosexual behavior ... and any activity that would have an appearance of evil."
Woods says that Mace responded by telling him he wouldn't be able to apply, and confirmed that it was because of his sexual orientation.
When asked at a press conference this morning how Woods reconciles UGM's argument about his sexual orientation and Christian faith, Woods responded: "As a person of Christian faith, I see that leading a Christian life is devoted to social justice, racial justice, economic justice. That's the most important part of my faith, and being able to serve those communities well means being able to serve inclusively, and people from all of those communities working hand in hand, working to be able to serve. That's how I see a good Christian community doing the best possible work."
Woods told reporters this morning that he was shocked that UGM would see his sexual orientation as a barrier to that service.
Terry Pallas, a pastor and chief program officer at UGM, confirmed to The Stranger this morning that UGM does exclude prospective employees on the basis of sexual orientation.
"We really appreciate the time that [Woods] spent volunteering with us, and you know, we serve indiscriminately with the most hurting and broken people in Seattle and King County," Pallas said. "And we are really thankful for his service coming alongside us. We have volunteers from all walks of life. To be an employee, we are asking that people be in alignment with the interpretation of Scripture that the board and executive team has stood in alignment with for 85 years."
And that interpretation of Scripture is that being gay is a sin?
"Yeah," Pallas responded.
So how could an organization that views homosexuality as a sin be able to serve homeless people who are LGBTQ "indiscriminately"?
"Every single one of us is broken, me included, and me first," Pallas said. "And we believe that all people are made in the reflection of God and he is continuing to redeem his people and believe that Jesus Christ came to restore us back to the image of god. So we hold a worldview that says that biblical marriage is between a man and a woman. And we think Scripture is clear about that. so as an ambassador, as an employee, we expect that anyone who is an employee, like someone who is employed at any church would stand in solidarity in that platform."
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.
"The state of Washington and the citizens of the state of Washington have said that discrimination is wrong, and that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation when it comes to a host of different rights, including marriage and other areas, is wrong," Diskin said.
Diskin and Woods stressed that while the lawsuit does seek civil damages under the state's anti-discrimination statute, the goal of the lawsuit is to change UGM's policy towards excluding LGBTQ employees.
"My motivation for bringing the suit isn't for compensation," Woods told reporters this morning. "I love the work that the Union Gospel Mission does for the homeless population in Seattle. I want to be part of it. And that's the important part for me, is that in the future someone like me will be able to participate in it."