What started out as a kindhearted gesture on the part of a gay couple who sought to volunteer at a free hot meal program may end up testing a 2006 Washington State law banning discrimination against LGBT people.
Tad Erichsen and John Footh, both 43, say they were denied volunteer work at His Supper Table, a free hot meal program, in March. The program, operated out of the Church of the Nazarene in Long Beach, Wash., describes itself as a nonprofit coalition of several local Christian churches. The two claim they were asked to leave when Mike Renfro, then meal program director, found out the men were gay.
Shortly after they arrived to volunteer, Erichsen and Footh say, they helped unload a vehicle containing food for the meal program but were abruptly pulled aside and questioned. They both were first asked if they were gay. When they answered yes, they were told to leave the premises.
"I said, 'I don't know how this has anything to do with feeding the homeless or people in need,'" Erichsen says.
According to Erichsen and Footh, Renfro said they would "create a hostile work environment" and asked them to leave. Erichsen and Footh noticed menacing glares from the other volunteers as the meal program director escorted them to their car.
"They just outed us and came right out and said we were not wanted there," Footh says. "This was one of the ugliest things like this to ever happen to us. They made us feel like we are not good enough to help other people because of our sexual orientation, and to me that is totally wrong."
Erichsen and Footh
Washington State Human Rights Commission executive director Marc Brenman says the couple's being denied the opportunity to volunteer based on their sexual orientation might be illegal.
"This is the first time I've heard of this particular type of situation, involving denial to volunteer, in light of our new law," Brenman said. "It is a real shame people are being denied the opportunity to volunteer, since we are always being told volunteerism is a good thing." Brenman added that most nonprofit organizations rely heavily, if not solely, on volunteers, and that the organizations are only "hurting themselves and the public" if and when they deny people the opportunity to volunteer based on a characteristic such as sexual orientation.
Brenman said since the law passed in 2006, his commission receives more than 40 calls a month from LGBT people. Approximately four to five of those calls result in formal complaints. A number of complaints also come from people with HIV and AIDS, a group that is specifically protected under the law.
"Even before the 2006 law people with HIV and AIDS were protected under the national Americans With Disabilities Act, but our 2006 law has specific language to protect this group," Brenman says. Erichsen and Footh, who filed a formal complaint with the Human Rights Commission May 27, are both HIV-positive.
Washington's 2006 law exempts religiously controlled nonprofit organizations from nondiscrimination employment requirements, but whether this applies to volunteer work is a gray area. "We are not telling a religiously controlled nonprofit organization who it can employ, but in the realm of volunteers, they are not employees," Brenman said. "With that said, it looks like the situation with this gay couple falls under the 2006 law."
Tara Borelli, a Lamda Legal staff attorney, says there isn't a clear rule for Erichsen and Footh's situation and that a religious group might argue it has the First Amendment on its side.
Erichsen and Footh say they decided to volunteer for His Supper Table out of gratitude after they went there or a free hot meal when they were going through a financial crisis in early 2007.
"We decided we wanted to give something back to our community," Footh says. "We didn't want to take from the meal program without giving something back. We wanted to work for it instead of getting something for free."
When the couple called His Supper Table in early March to volunteer, the person who answered the phone called them "truly men of God" for offering their time.
The men note that the His Supper Table Thrift Store in neighboring Seaview, Wash., which funds the meal program, apparently does not turn away donated items or question patrons.
"They do not care who shops or donates at their thrift store," Erichsen says. "So it is all about money. They do not have people at the door asking who is gay."
Erichsen adds that he works for a local florist that supplies flower arrangements to the Church of the Nazarene. "It is OK for me to design flowers for this church, but it is not OK for me to volunteer there to serve food for people in need," he says. "They have yet to put two and two together."
Repeated calls for the Church of the Nazarene national headquarters in Kansas City have gone unanswered, and there has been no response to messages left at its Pacific Northwest regional headquarters. The church in Long Beach issued a statement saying that it is simply allowing the His Supper Table meal program to use its facilities, but Erichsen and Footh say the church and food bank appeared to be one in the same the day of the incident.
"It appears the Church of the Nazarene also stands behind this antigay position," Footh says. "[The church is] working very hard to distance themselves from His Supper Table, but I am not buying it."
According to the denomination's website, while the Church of the Nazarene "believes that every man or woman should be treated with dignity, grace, and holy love, whatever their sexual orientation," it also believes that "the homosexual lifestyle is sinful and is contrary to the Scriptures."
Through all this, the couple has asked the church for an apology, even if indirect, but has yet to receive one.
"Our statement, from John and myself, is that we do not want a personal apology," Erichsen says. "We want an apology to the community because it is the community that supports them. The apology needs to be addressed in terms of their un-Christian-like behavior. Jesus doesn't care who serves."