The Supreme Court on Monday issued orders from the justices’ private conference last week. The justices did not add any new cases to their merits docket for the 2022-23 term. They denied review in a case involving the right of a religious non-profit to decline to hire employees who do not share their religious beliefs, but two justices – Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas – suggested that the court should take up the question soon.
The case, Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission v. Woods, began when Matthew Woods, a former intern at a legal-aid clinic run by a religious non-profit, applied for a job as a staff attorney at the clinic. When Woods indicated that he did not attend church and that he was in a same-sex relationship, the clinic director told him that he would not be eligible for the position because it would violate the mission’s “religious-lifestyle” requirement, and his application was denied. Woods then sued the clinic, alleging that it had violated a state anti-discrimination law. The Washington Supreme Court allowed the case to go forward, prompting the clinic to come to the U.S. Supreme Court last year asking the justices to decide whether a legal-aid clinic operated by a religious non-profit can decline to hire employees who do not share its religious views, and whether the state violates the Constitution’s free exercise clause when it does not give the clinic the same exemption that it provides to small businesses. After repeatedly rescheduling the case, the justices finally turned the clinic down on Monday.
In a six-page statement regarding the denial of review, Alito (joined by Thomas) emphasized that the state supreme court’s “reasoning presumes that the guarantee of church autonomy” in the Constitution only protects a religious organization’s decisions regarding employees whose formal job titles are ministers. “But our precedents,” Alito continued, “suggest that the guarantee of church autonomy is not so narrowly confined.” And if states could require religious groups “to hire employees who fundamentally disagree with them,” Alito added, “many non-profits would be extinguished from participation in public life.” However, Alito noted, because the Washington Supreme Court “did not address whether applying state employment law to require the Mission to hire someone who is not a co-religionist would infringe the First Amendment,” and because Woods contends that the state court’s ruling is not the kind of final judgment that the U.S. Supreme Court can review, he agreed with the decision not to take up the mission’s case now.
The justices sent the case of Edward Hedican, a Wisconsin man who seeks to intervene in a lawsuit filed against Walmart by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, back to the court of appeals for another look in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling earlier this month in Cameron v. EMW Women’s Surgical Center, holding that the Kentucky attorney general should have been allowed to intervene to defend a state law restricting abortion after the state’s health secretary declined to do so. Hedican was hired by Walmart to work as an assistant manager at a store that is continuously open, but as a Seventh-Day Adventist he cannot work from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. When Walmart rescinded its employment offer, Hedican went to the EEOC, which filed a lawsuit on his behalf. After the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit denied the EEOC’s petition for rehearing en banc, Hedican sought to join the case so that he could seek Supreme Court review if the government did not, but the court of appeals denied his request on the ground that it came too late.
This post is also published on SCOTUSblog.