Category Personnel/Employment
Title Religious Hiring Vindicated Again: The World Vision Case
Preview Religious Hiring Vindicated Again: The World Vision Case

Religious Hiring Vindicated Again
The World Vision Case
By Stanley Carlson-Thies. Reprinted with permission.

For a third, and likely final, time, World Vision's religious hiring policy has been vindicated in the federal courts. Several employees let go because they no longer agreed with the organization's religious commitments had sued, claiming that World Vision is a humanitarian rather than religious organization, and so must not consider religion in making employment decisions. But the courts have now repeatedly ruled that World Vision is both religious and humanitarian and thus can legally hire on a religious basis.

This third victory was the January 25 decision by the very liberal Ninth Circuit federal appeals court not to rehear as a full panel ("en banc")—and possibly overturn—an earlier ruling of three of its judges. Those judges had ruled 2-1 last August in favor of World Vision. And their ruling backed up the original favorable ruling from July 2009 in Seattle's federal court. The three former employees can as the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case, but that seems unlikely.

The religious hiring freedom goes back to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and its amendments in 1972. In establishing federal employment nondiscrimination rules, Congress decided that not only churches but also parachurch organizations must be free to consider religion in choosing their employees. But fired employees and unsuccessful applicants have repeatedly tested the law, hoping the courts will declare that the particular organization that has rejected them is not a religious organization entitled to the exemption that permits religious hiring.

The Ninth Circuit has now strongly confirmed that the category of religious organization goes beyond narrowly church-like organizations. An organization need not just offer Bible teaching or missionary activities; what is critical is that it provides its services because of its faith convictions, its operations are shaped by those convictions, and it makes clear to the public and to prospective employees that it operates as a religious organization.

The most recent ruling is a bit troubling, because it also includes in its criteria for exempt organizations that they receive only minimal revenues for providing services. The ruling doesn't say that only religious organizations that fit all of the criteria can legitimately hire by religion. Still, this issue of minimal revenue is a problem. Do the judges want to call into question the exempt character of nonprofit hospitals (Medicaid, Medicare, and insurance payments), charities that provide low-income housing (and collect minimal rent), and groups that operate thrift shops? Most likely not. (Religious schools and colleges have their own separate exemption.)

The firm line against commercial activity the court tries to draw is troubling more broadly, too. Shouldn't it be clear that religious camps, bookstores, publishers, and broadcasters rightly can hire on a religious basis even though they make a profit? And what about the growing phenomena of "social entrepreneurship"—nonprofit organizations engaging in profit-making to help fund their charitable good works? What about the burgeoning movement of "spiritual companies"—businesses that stress ethics and a corporate mission to do good, companies that hire chaplains and attend to the spiritual dimension? It seems that the judges are trying to draw a bright line that doesn't exist in reality.

Editor's note: The Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance (IRFA) works to safeguard the religious identity, faith-based standards and practices, and faith-shaped services of faith-based organizations across the range of service sectors and religions, enabling them to make their distinctive and best contributions to the common good. 

Also, for more information on Spencer v. World Vision, visit  

Reprinted from eNews for Faith-Based Organizations, February 8, 2011, with permission from IRFA and Stanley Carlson-Thies    

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