In this legal guide, you will find recommendations for better protecting your rescue mission’s religious freedom, as well as additional information about governing documents, current legal trends, and more, all geared to help you so that you can better serve those who have the greatest need.
Protecting Your Rescue Mission:
How to Better Prepare Your Rescue Mission for Religious Freedom Legal Threats
ESTIMATED READING TIME:
20 min 16 seconds
“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
A woman stumbles into a dark alleyway in the dead of winter. She’s desperate, sad, and her body is numb from the cold. Her past has dictated her present; years of abuse, some inflicted by others, some inflicted by her own hands, weigh down her fragile frame. She’s gotten used to the hunger pangs; it’s the willing ignorance of others to her plight that still stings.
It’s a cold night and it will only get colder. She sits against a building holding herself to preserve what little warmth is left in her body. As she starts to dose off to what will likely be another fitful half-sleep, she hears footsteps, footsteps followed by the kind voice of a woman.
“Ma’am, do you need help? I’m with the rescue mission a couple of blocks away. Would you come with me? We have a warm place for you to sleep tonight. There’s food, too.”
The work of a faith-based rescue mission is important. Sheltering the homeless, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and mending human brokenness are how faith-based rescue missions serve as the hands and feet of Christ. These ministries are integral in the preservation and restoration of lives, helping restore dignity while reminding all who come into their care that they’re image-bearers of a God who loves them and gave Himself for them.
As we see in Matthew 25, Christ commands us to care for “the least of these.” Faith-based rescue missions are on the frontline of what Jesus calls His followers to do. At ADF, we’re thankful that faith-based rescue missions willingly put their faith into action. And we want to work alongside your ministry to help keep the doors open for the Gospel. Faith-based rescue missions face unique issues related to religious liberty and encounter legal needs that extend beyond what many other Christian ministries may have.
Download the free RESource now.
In the following article, you will find recommendations for better protecting your rescue mission’s religious freedom, as well as additional information about governing documents, current legal trends, and more, all geared to help you so that you can better serve those who have the greatest need. For more information on how to become a member of ADF Ministry Alliance, click here.
For over 30 years, Downtown Hope Center has been transforming lives—helping, teaching, and feeding homeless men and women by day and providing a safe place for women at night. But not everyone was content with letting the Center follow its Christ-centered mission.
One of the biggest threats to religious liberty and privacy today is sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) laws. These laws add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” as protected classes to existing nondiscrimination laws. They regulate access to private facilities based on subjective self-perceptions of “gender” and not objective biological sex and typically apply to public facilities or accommodations – including faith-based rescue missions.
As proposed legislation arises – at the federal, state, or local level – regarding SOGI or any other matter that would negatively impact your ministry’s religious freedom, consider consulting with legal counsel on how you might speak against that legislation.
Your admissions procedures matter and faith-based rescue missions should adopt proper intake procedures for the guests you serve.
Faith-based rescue missions should have the right to restrict access to certain areas of their facilities based on biological sex.
Faith-based rescue missions should have the ability to hire those who share and live out the organization’s religious beliefs. But not everyone agrees about that. This is something Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission is unfortunately well acquainted with.
Faith-based rescue missions should have the right to carryout employment decisions in accordance with their faith.
A best practice for rescue missions requires volunteers to sign your ministry’s statement of faith annually or semiannually. You might even consider adopting a volunteer policy that describes who is allowed to volunteer.
Whenever the government provides a grant or service available to the public, religious ministries cannot be treated worse if they apply.
By God’s grace, Alliance Defending Freedom has been at theforefront of legal issues impacting the religious freedom of faith-based rescuemissions, schools, businesses, churches, and nonprofits for nearly three decades.We have seen the changes in our culture lead to legal challenges that threatenthe ability of Christians to freely live and share the Gospel.
Before we take a look at practical steps you can take to empower your ministry, let’s look at a real-life story.
While there’s no “silver bullet” for protecting a ministry from every religious freedom threat, there are concrete actions rescue missions can take to help protect their autonomy, especially as laws threatening that freedom are on the rise.
The Downtown Hope Center in Alaska is a Christian nonprofit that offers job skills training, daily meals, laundry, and clothing for homeless men and women – all free of charge. Its mission is to “offer those in need support, shelter,sustenance, and skills to transform their lives.”
For over 30 years, the Hope Center has been transforming lives. It has been helping, teaching, and feeding homeless men and women by handing out 450-600 cups of soup during the day and providing a safe place for women to sleep at night.
The Hope Center serves everyone during the day. Regardless of their background or how they identify, men and women alike are welcome to receive meals, clothing, and job skills training at the Center – and many have. But to provide a safe place for women seeking escape from sex trafficking and other abusive situations, the Hope Center’s overnight facilities and changing rooms are only open to women.
In January 2018, a man, who identified as a woman, tried to access the women’s shelter. Because he was drunk and injured, the Hope Center referred him to the local hospital and even paid for his cab to get there. But soon after, a complaint was filed against the Hope Center with the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission, claiming the Center had discriminated against the man based on a local SOGI ordinance.
There was just one problem: The Hope Center never violated the law. In fact, it helped this man get the care he needed.
However, the city chose to pursue the complaint against the Center, prompting Alliance Defending Freedom to file a federal lawsuit on the Center’s behalf.
The U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska rightly issued an order saying Anchorage’s public accommodation law did not apply to the Center’s women’s shelter and could not be used to force the Center to open its women’s shelter to men. The city eventually dropped the complaint, and both the city and the Center agreed to make the court’s temporary order against the city permanent.
Unfortunately, the story didn’t end there. After the city’s first loss in federal court, the Anchorage Assembly amended the city ordinance in an attempt to find a new way to target Downtown Hope Center and force it to violate its deeply held beliefs by having males sleep mere feet away from women who have been abused. Thankfully, their attempt to squelch the Hope Center’s First Amendment freedoms failed: The U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska reiterated that the Downtown Hope Center does not constitute a place of public accommodation and therefore is not subject to the city’s revised ordinance that threatened the shelter with fines and penalties for following its religious beliefs while serving women in need.
Vulnerable women deserve a safe place to stay overnight, and faith-based rescue missions should be free to serve these women consistent with their faith, without fear of unjust government interference or punishment.
One of the biggest threats to religious liberty and privacy today are sexual orientation and gender identity laws.
These laws elevate “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” as protected classes to existing nondiscrimination laws. They regulate access to private facilities based on subjective self-perceptions of“gender” and not objective biological sex and typically apply to public facilities or accommodations – including showers, locker rooms, restrooms, and other sex-specific places open to the public. While proponents argue that SOGI laws promote “equality,” in practice, they threaten the ability of ministries to follow their religious beliefs regarding human sexuality and threaten privacy and safety.
In addition to public accommodations, SOGI laws almost always apply to employment and housing policies. And although they may sound helpful, they pose serious challenges in practice.
As we saw in the case of the Downtown Hope Center, your admissions procedures matter, and faith-based rescue missions should adopt proper intake procedures for the guests they serve. This can include intake forms that prospective guests complete that clearly communicate the religious nature of the rescue mission and clarify that the ministry operates according to its statement of faith. Referring back to your ministry’s statement of faith is important because courts generally regard a clear statement of faith as a sincere expression of a ministry’s religious beliefs and defer to it as the First Amendment requires.
Faith-based rescue missions should have the right to restrict access to certain areas of their facilities based on biological sex.
It is important to clarify that restricting access to members of the opposite sex may not only be relevant to following your beliefs. It is also related to concerns about the physical safety of the guests under your care. Faith-based rescue missions often host some of the most vulnerable women in our society. As you consider female guests’ mental and physical health, it’s entirely appropriate not to allow men into intimate spaces, including showers, sleeping areas, etc., where women are present.
Members of ADF Ministry Alliance have access to attorneys and resources that help them create strong facility use policies, as well as other important governing documents for their ministry.
Another significant issue affecting faith-based rescue missions involves the ability to hire those who share and live out the organization’s religious beliefs, something Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission unfortunately knows all too well.
Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission faithfully serves the homeless by providing food, shelter, addiction recovery, job placement, and legal services. Its roots go back to the Great Depression when the Mission opened its doors as a soup kitchen. The ministry’s religious convictions and evangelization efforts are the foundation for everything it does. As a result, every staff member must share and live out the Mission’s religious beliefs for the Mission to be successful.
In November 2016, an attorney applied for a position with the Mission’s legal-aid clinic—a position that involves talking with clients about Jesus Christ and attending worship services and prayer meetings in addition to providing legal advice. The Mission declined to hire the applicant because he didn’t share or live according to the ministry’s stated Christian beliefs. Among other things, the applicant mentioned no personal relationship with Jesus Christ in his application, was not active in a local church, and didn’t provide a pastor’s name and contact information as the Mission required. But he still sued the Mission after his application was rejected.
A Washington state trial court initially ruled for the Mission, recognizing that the Mission fell squarely within Washington’s statutory exemption for religious nonprofits. But the Washington Supreme Court overrode the exemption and held that the Mission has no First Amendment right to hire only coreligionists – that is, people who share its religious beliefs.
As a result, in most cases, Washington State law now requires religious ministries to employ those who contradict the very beliefs they were created to promote unless a position qualifies for the Washington Supreme Court’s narrow interpretation of the ministerial exception. The Washington Supreme Court decision threatens to undermine faith-based rescue missions organized around and designed to promote a specific, shared set of religious beliefs. The Mission asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear its case.
The Supreme Court declined to hear the Mission’s case—for now. But a statement written by Justice Alito, and joined by Justice Thomas, invited the Mission to come back later after there is a final state court judgment. The Mission continues to stand up for faith-based organizations’ right to hire those who share—and live out—their religious beliefs.
Faith-based rescue missions should have the right to carry out employment decisions in accordance with their faith. While some may want to limit this freedom, it’s a fundamental principle enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.
For every employment position, all ministries should have the freedom to only hire people who share the ministry’s beliefs and mission.
This coreligionist principle is reflected in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In section 701 of the Act, Congress states that preferential treatment based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin is illegal. However, Congress realized how little sense it made to force religious organizations to hire staff members who don’t hold the same religious views and beliefs. So, in section 702, Congress provided religious organizations with an exemption from Title VII’s nondiscrimination requirements, allowing them to prefer “coreligionists” in employment matters.
However, this principle remains the subject of continued litigation. In light of that, we strongly encourage your rescue mission to consult with an ADF attorney to help protect your right to hire only those who share your beliefs. Becoming a member of ADF Ministry Alliance is affordable and helps your rescue mission weather the religious freedom challenges that are on the rise today. For more information, click here.
Volunteers enable your rescue mission to accomplish more with limited resources. However, it is important that volunteers also agree to respect your ministry’s core beliefs and mission and – like employees – follow certain standards of faith and conduct while volunteering. A best practice for rescue missions requires volunteers to sign your ministry’s statement of faith annually or semiannually. As a member of ADF Ministry Alliance, we’ll help you work through proper roles and boundaries for volunteers to bolster religious freedom protections.
For more information on becoming an ADF Ministry Alliance member, please see the information below.
Require volunteers to sign your ministry’s statement of faith on an annual or semiannual basis.
The service that faith-based rescue missions provide to some of the most vulnerable members of our society is critical. This work often can’t be done without generous financial donations from supporters. And in some cases, the government can provide supplemental funding that helps a ministry pursue its mission. It’s important to know that whenever the government provides a grantor service available to the public, religious ministries cannot be treated worse if they apply. Your ministry is equal in the eyes of the law concerning grants and services. So, if your ministry is otherwise eligible for a government grant or service, you have the right to contend on the same basis as other applicants.
However, as a condition of receiving federal, state, or local government funding, the government typically requires that recipients adhere to certain criteria – criteria that could compromise your rescue mission’s religious freedom.
All funding streams should be carefully reviewed by a religious freedom attorney, even funding that may not appear to be an attempt to limit your rescue mission’s religious freedom.
It is imperative that you – with the help of an attorney – fully evaluate the source and all requirements of potential funding streams before entering an agreement or accepting money.
If your rescue mission is currently accepting government funds, we recommend revisiting the documentation with one of our attorneys. They will review the requirements through a First Amendment lens so that you can be aware of any religious freedom issues.
Review the sources and all requirements of potential funding streams with a religious freedom attorney before entering an agreement or accepting money.
Faith-based Rescue missions are vital ministries answering Christ’s call to care for the “least of these.” But some of these ministries are under increased scrutiny, making leading a faith-based rescue mission in this day and age an increasingly daunting task.
Without proper advice and safeguards in place, rescue missions have mounting religious liberty related legal burdens pertaining to facility use, employment, volunteer requirements, and more. These legal burdens often distract from the core mission of your rescue mission and ultimately hinder your ministry.
Leaders of these ministries shouldn’t have to bear the full weight of religious liberty burdens that come with the changing culture. But few rescue missions have the resources for regular legal consultations or to respond if a legal challenge arises. And the legal preparation and protection that rescue missions need is often too costly to afford.
The risks of not being as prepared as possible are even higher. Critical governance documentation may be incomplete or outdated. Rescue missions may be unsure of how to handle issues that they should have the freedom to address. And if a religious freedom lawsuit comes their way, they often don’t know where to turn. Without legal help, these ministries may, even unknowingly, surrender many of their First Amendment rights that are central to maintaining their identity and ability to serve some of the most vulnerable members of our society.
By God’s grace, Alliance Defending Freedom has been at the forefront of legal issues impacting the religious freedom of faith-based rescue missions, schools, businesses, churches, and nonprofits for nearly three decades. We have seen the changes in our culture lead to legal challenges that threaten the ability of Christians to freely live and share the Gospel.
That is why Alliance Defending Freedom launched ADF Ministry Alliance – to provide rescue missions and other ministries with the religious liberty legal help they need to freely minister. We hope your rescue mission will consider joining us in ADF Ministry Alliance membership so that you can have the best preparation and protection possible without the traditionally high cost of robust legal support.
Send your rescue mission’s governing documents, policies, employment documents, and more to ADF attorneys. We review these documents and discuss recommendations tailored to protect your rescue mission’s religious liberty.
Reach out to our attorneys whenever you have legal questions about your rescue mission’s religious liberty. If you aren’t sure if your legal question has religious freedom implications, you are still free to reach out to us.
Stay on top of trending news and laws impacting ministries. Through membership, you will also have access to helpful and understandable legal guides, sample documents and employment policies, and so much more.
Ensure rescue missions like yours receive legal advice for religious freedom issues when they need it. If necessary and appropriate, we can even help your rescue mission with legal matters that involve litigation at no additional cost.
We hope this information is helpful for you and your rescue mission. Your ministry’s work is important, and we want to come alongside your institution to help keep its doors open as you work to care for the “least of these” and spread the Gospel.
Get in touch with us. We'll have one of our regional alliance directors reach out to you.
This information is an educational resource, 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.