by Ryan Tucker
God routinely shows up in broken places to care for vulnerable people, and He calls His followers to do the same. In Matthew 25, Jesus tells us plainly that when we love and serve society’s downtrodden and outcast, we’re not only extending love to fellow image bearers, but we’re also truly loving and serving God. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. (Matthew 25:35–36, ESV) Faith-based rescue missions and kindred ministries are on the frontlines of the work Jesus calls His followers to undertake. Through this work, you offer tangible and practical help, along with much needed hope to the “least of these” Jesus was referring to in Matthew 25. With the truth and hope of the gospel at the core of this ministry, you seek to further the mission of transformation in the lives of those you serve every day.
All ministries should be able to serve in accordance with their deeply held religious convictions and beliefs. But some faith-based rescue missions are facing a challenging legal landscape that threatens their ability to serve and carry out their commissions in the way they feel called.
Our principal work as Christians is to love God, love others, disciple, and serve with compassion, and nothing the U.S. or Canadian governments do can stop that from happening. The counsel here is to take responsible measures to maintain organizational freedoms to minister as you see fit.
This is not to suggest that legal challenges can stop the gospel. In fact, evangelism is exploding, even in countries where there is little to no religious freedom. For instance, in China — officially an atheist nation — there are more Christians today than in France or Germany. Many believe the number of Christ followers in China will surpass the United States in less than a generation. Although the Chinese government actively and aggressively discriminates against and targets Christians, the gospel thrives.
Our principal work as Christians is to love God, love others, disciple, and serve with compassion, and nothing the U.S. or Canadian governments do can stop that from happening. The counsel here is to take responsible measures to maintain organizational freedoms to minister as you see fit. As some of your colleagues can tell you, when someone challenges your objectives from the inside out, the result can be an enormous distraction from the true work and a drain on valuable ministry resources.
This reality highlights the importance of having sound governing documents in place to help better protect your ministry’s right to operate consistently with its beliefs. These governing documents include: a Statement of Faith, a Christian Code of Conduct, religious job descriptions, and religious employment criteria.
A Statement of Faith should be the foundational document of your ministry. The statement expresses your ministry’s core religious beliefs and serves as clear evidence of those beliefs if they are called into question in a lawsuit. The statement also serves as the backbone of your ministry’s policies and procedures.
This code establishes expectations of acceptable behavior for all employees and guests and should be consistent with your ministry’s Statement of Faith. The code should address a variety of behaviors related to your ministry’s particular context.
While the level of detail and specific types of conduct addressed will vary from organization to organization, religious organizations that have expectations about proper conduct with respect to marriage and sexuality are encouraged to address those issues given current cultural and legal trends. The Code of Conduct should explain your ministry’s beliefs on these topics — including citations to your Statement of Faith — and clarify that your ministry expects employees, guests, and volunteers to respect those beliefs.
Your ministry should create written job descriptions for every employment and volunteer position. These job descriptions will be unique to each organization and position. The descriptions should explain how the position furthers the organization’s religious mission, what the responsibilities and duties of the position include, and what training and skills are necessary for the position. Although every position within a ministry furthers its religious mission, for legal purposes the link between an employment position and the organization’s mission cannot be assumed. Clearly articulate this link in writing.
Generally, ministries have a First Amendment right to hire those who share their religious beliefs. Thus, every faith-based rescue mission should establish written religious criteria for its employees. Federal law explicitly prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, or age. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 2020 that an employer can also be held liable under federal employment law — which prohibits discrimination based on “sex” — when the employer terminates an employee based solely on an employee’s sexual orientation or transgender status. Although there are exceptions for ministries that give employment preference to members of their own faith, the Supreme Court has yet to precisely clarify the scope of these exceptions. This uncertainty in the law means that ministries must be careful in crafting their documents and policies.
For instance, in some states, faith-based rescue missions are coming under scrutiny for aligning employment practices with biblical principles they expect their employees to live by. In light of this, your ministry should be proactive in preparing for such scrutiny.
Although every position within a ministry furthers its religious mission, for legal purposes the link between an employment position and the organization’s mission cannot be assumed. Clearly articulate this link in writing.
Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission (SUGM) opened during the Great Depression as a soup kitchen. It exists to live out the greatest commandments of loving God and others, as well as the Great Commission to make disciples. Today, the mission serves its homeless neighbors by providing food; shelter; and addiction-recovery, job placement, and legal services, among other things.
Like the ministries you’re involved in, SUGM strives to be the hands and feet of Christ. And the ministry’s actions match its words. Here’s the introduction to its Statement of Faith: As a non-profit Christian ministry, Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission bases its work on the teachings of Jesus Christ. We take seriously His command to feed hungry people, clothe those who are naked, and provide shelter for those who are homeless. We consistently combine our faith with action by serving those in greatest need regardless of their religious beliefs, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
Everything the mission does is designed to share the gospel message — and it makes this clear in its Statement of Faith, which is publicly available on its website. What’s more, the mission’s Code of Christian Conduct goes a step further and also clarifies that every staff member must hold and live out those beliefs, as well as share the gospel with the people they serve.
SUGM is within its constitutional rights to do this, but unfortunately the Washington Supreme Court disagrees. The Court ruled against the ministry when it declined to hire a lawyer for its legal-aid clinic after the job applicant refused to follow the mission’s religious-lifestyle requirements. The mission learned that he was not active in a local church and, therefore, could not give a pastor’s name and contact information for a reference, as the mission required. Beyond that, the lawyer disagreed with the organization’s beliefs and applied for the position expressly hoping to change those beliefs. Ultimately, the Court’s decision violates SUGM’s religious liberty and independence.
While the mission is still involved in a legal battle, it had wisely taken the three essential steps to prepare before the battle began. First, it clearly communicated its beliefs in its Statement of Faith and employment policies. Second, it created core documents memorializing its beliefs and practices. Finally, it consistently applied the core documents to all aspects of the ministry, including employment.
Unfortunately, in today’s rapidly changing religious freedom landscape, it is not a question of if ministries will be threatened or sued for holding fast to the truth of God’s Word and asking employees to do the same — the question is when and where such cases will arise. That’s why Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) created the ADF Ministry Alliance membership program — so that you can get the religious liberty legal help you need when you need it. ADF’s legal team prepares, advises, and even represents ministries, when necessary and appropriate, because we want your ministry to be able to operate in accordance with its beliefs.
This article is not a substitute for legal advice. We encourage you to reach out to an ADF attorney if you have specific religious liberty questions or situations relating to your rescue mission.
Ryan serves as senior counsel and director of the Center for Christian Ministries with Alliance Defending Freedom.
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This article originally appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of INSTIGATE magazine. © Citygate Network, All rights reserved. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org for additional permissions.