| 29 August 2010
The 9th circuit federal appeals court on August 23 vindicated World Vision’s religious hiring policies (Spencer v. World Vision). Although World Vision is engaged in humanitarian work, it does its work as a religious organization, and thus is free under the law to consider religion in making employment decisions. This is an important decision for parachurch organizations.
In the case, several former employees, fired because they no longer followed World Vision's religious commitments, had charged the organization with religious job discrimination, claiming that it was not a "religious organization" entitled to the religious hiring exemption of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The appeals court, backing up the 2008 decision of the Seattle federal court, firmly disagreed with this novel theory. An organization can be humanitarian and religious at the same time. To be entitled to the exemption, it need not be a church nor be controlled by a church nor do only "religious" things. Rather, to qualify as a religious organization entitled to the religious exemption, an organization needs to show that that it is "organized for a self-identified religious purpose" as manifested in its foundational documents, is "engaged in activity consistent with, and in furtherance of" the religious purpose, and "holds itself out to the public as religious."
The opinion affirms that, to be fulfilling a "religious purpose," an organization need not confine itself to worship-like activities. Serving "secular" needs because of a divine calling is a valid religious purpose. Moreover, it can be a legitimate expression of an organization's religious approach that it serves people of all or no faiths and that it refuses to force its religious views on those it serves.
In short: to be an organization legally able to select employees on a religious basis, a nonprofit organization must make clear its religious identity, manifest that identity in the way it operates, and tie its employment practices to its religious commitments.
All that is to the good. But the decision was 2-1, and the dissenting judge insisted that World Vision must be a secular, not a religious, organization, because it engages in humanitarian work and not in worship or religious teaching. That's a cramped view of religion, of course: in Christian terms, it is as if Jesus had commanded his followers only to love God entirely--without adding that love for neighbors is equally important. Supporters of faith-based service in the world will have to keep making their case to the rest of society.
For further information:
9th circuit opinion: http://www.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2010/08/23/08-35532.pdf
Christianity Today online story on the decision: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/augustweb-only/44-42.0.html
IRFA resources on religious hiring: http://irfalliance.org/religious-hiring.html