Organization sues over complaint

By: 
Ellen Gerst and Mary Steurer with the Casper Star-Tribune, via the Wyoming News Exchange

CASPER — The Wyoming Rescue Mission is suing state and federal equal employment agencies after being threatened with punishment for refusing to hire a non-Christian employee. 

The Rescue Mission operates a homeless shelter, meal service, recovery program and two thrift stores in the Casper area. 

In a federal complaint filed Tuesday, the organization alleges that the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is preventing them from hiring open positions out of fear of violating the law. 

The complaint comes after an applicant was not hired for a clerk position at the Rescued Treasures thrift store in 2020 after saying she was not Christian, court documents say. 

The organization is represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a national conservative Christian coalition of lawyers. The coalition is representing the Mission pro bono, said Arizona-based senior counsel Jeremiah Galus. 

ADF also recently moved to join an ongoing lawsuit over Wyoming’s abortion ban, in an effort to present more arguments against providers who say the ban is too vague and may delay or deny prenatal care. 

The job applicant who lodged the initial complaint in October 2020 reportedly did not provide an interviewer the name of a church she attended or a “spiritual reference,” which the organization reportedly asks of all applicants. 

According to the complaint, the Mission hired a “coreligionist,” or someone with the same Christian beliefs, instead. 

Now, the Rescue Mission is asking a federal judge to rule that it has a constitutional right to exclusively hire Christians who share the organization’s beliefs. 

“The Wyoming Rescue Mission shouldn’t have to sit idle and under threat of substantial fine and penalty and not knowing what it can and cannot do,” Galus said. 

Job postings for the Rescue Mission state employees are required to be a person “of strong faith.” 

Federal and state policies say employers can’t discriminate against potential hires on the basis of religion or “creed,” in the state of Wyoming. 

A lawyer for the Rescue Mission said that since it is a religious organization, it is exempted from those policies. 

But according to court filings, DWS told the Mission those exemptions only applied for “ministerial” employees who lead worship or conduct religious ceremonies. 

“We consider every position ministry, I mean, it’s serving the Lord,” Executive Director Brad Hopkins said. “There’s no less value on somebody if they’re preaching a message in a pulpit or, you know, fixing a leaky plumbing issue.” 

After being denied the job, the applicant filed a discrimination complaint with DWS and the EEOC, the federal agency that enforces fair employment laws. 

Following a nine month investigation, court filings say, DWS concluded that the Mission had discriminated against the applicant and “perpetrated a violation of state and federal statutes.” 

DWS also proposed that the Rescue Mission pay the applicant more than $3,000 in back pay and stop hiring on the basis of religion. When the Mission declined that arrangement, the complaint was sent to the federal agency. 

The EEOC, after its own investigation, also reportedly found the Mission was not covered by those exemptions and had likely discriminated against the applicant. 

Job postings for openings at the Rescue Mission have not been allowed on the DWS website since 2019, after the department said it would not list jobs requiring certain religious beliefs. 

The Mission also alleged in court filings that the investigations have also stopped them from taking disciplinary action against a current employee “who openly expressed disagreement with the Mission’s beliefs.” 

Hopkins said that, to his knowledge, this is the first formal complaint of religious discrimination lodged against the Mission. 

The Wyoming Rescue Mission is the main homeless shelter in central Wyoming. 

The nonprofit’s services are heavily influenced by its Christian values. Its addiction treatment program uses a “Bible-based,” 12-step curriculum, according to the Mission’s website. Clients take part in a series of educational courses and do volunteer work, in addition to undergoing addiction treatment, Christian counseling and case management services. 

Annual contributions to the organization have more than doubled in the last decade. 

Before 2016, the Mission was pulling in less than $2 million in donations every year, according to a nonprofit database maintained by ProPublica. Since 2017, the organization reported contributions between $3.4 million and $4.4 million annually. 

In August, the Mission opened a new $3.3 million center on its Casper campus for its addiction treatment program. It was the second phase of a years-long campaign to grow the organization and its services.

 

This story was published on Sept. 21, 2022.

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