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Whatcom County rejects funds for religious group’s shelter, citing its anti-bias clause

Lighthouse Mission is losing about $1 million in public funds for its new homeless shelter because the Christian organization’s hiring practices conflict with Whatcom County laws that prohibit bias based on sexual orientation or religious affiliation.

Mission officials were seeking $750,000 from unspent federal pandemic relief funds and an additional $250,000 from the county for an industrial kitchen in a 400-bed facility that it is building to replace the temporary Base Camp shelter in downtown Bellingham, according to an email to the council from Lighthouse Mission CEO Hans Erchinger-Davis.

But the County Council rejected that request on a 4-1-1 vote Tuesday because the nonprofit organization doesn’t employ people who are gay or not Christian.

Councilman Ben Elenbaas dissented and Councilwoman Kathy Kershner abstained. Councilman Tyler Byrd was absent.

“They do good work. They do good work with the homeless, that is true. But their hiring practices discriminate,” Councilwoman Carol Frazey said in a Committee of the Whole meeting Tuesday.

“It’s not just that you have to be Christian. Lighthouse Mission Ministries discriminates against the LGBTQ community. As a county, I don’t think most of our constituents would want us to discriminate in that way,” Frazey said.

Kershner said she understood “the frustration about the hiring practices,” but said the organization is “open and honest about who they are” and is the only organization in Whatcom County that is sheltering people who have nowhere else to turn.

Stock photo of Lighthouse mission logo.
Stock photo of Lighthouse mission logo.

“We’re going to stand for one thing, but at the same time we’re going to lose a whole lot,” Kershner said.

“There have been things that I haven’t agreed with but I’ve voted for because it’s in the best interest of our community. I don’t know how to vote on this. I don’t want to vote yes and I don’t want to vote no. I’ll probably abstain,” she said.

Elenbass said he believes that not funding the mission could be seen as religious discrimination.

“I would highly recommend that we revisit (the issue) with some legal counsel,” he said during the discussion.

Erchinger-Davis told The Bellingham Herald the mission provides food, shelter and other services to everyone, regardless of “identity, race, gender or creed” but that “traditional Christian faith tenets” are required of its employees.

“Lighthouse Mission Ministries was surprised and disappointed in the Whatcom County Council’s decision to refuse support for the mission to provide meals for the vulnerable in Whatcom County through the purchase of kitchen equipment with (pandemic relief) funding,” Erchinger-Davis said in an email.

“The Lighthouse Mission is willing to work with the county and all other local community organizations and volunteers that are interested in alleviating homelessness in our community. We look forward to serving with the community into the future as we focus on the solution for homelessness together,” he said.

Anti-bias measures were waived for county funding in March 2020 as pandemic-relief efforts began, but they were reinstated in February 2021, Frazey said during Tuesday’s meeting.

It’s not the first time that the mission’s religious beliefs have clashed with anti-bias measures.

In May 2022, the mission was forced to reject a nearly $120,000 pandemic bonus for its employees for the same reason.