April 2, 2014

World Vision and religious freedom

by Jesse Johnson

Have you ever wondered why religious bookstores, Christian schools, and other religious organizations are allowed to discriminate based on religion in their hiring? Why is it legal for a radio station, or a charity, or a halal butcher to only employ those of like faith? The answer goes back to a legal right enshrined by World Vision, and a right that World Vision last week considered leveraging to advance the same-sex agenda in the United States.

World Vision is one of the world’s largest aide organizations, and annually distributes hundreds of millions of dollars worth of material support globally. Many believers know them through their Story Concert Tour, or through their child sponsorship programs. Last week World Vision made the news when they announced that they were changing their employment policy to declare that a person can be a committed evangelical Christian, and yet be involved in a homosexual relationship (they then reversed their decision 24 hours later).

This was more than simply a PR slight of hand—it would have impacted the very nature of religious freedom in the US. What you may not realize is how significant the change World Vision was proposing. If you thought this just reflected an HR move from an aide organization, you missed World Vision’s historical connection to religious freedom in the US.

Back in 2006 World Vision fired three of its employees for denying the deity of Jesus. The employees sued, essentially saying that only churches/synagogues/mosques/etc., had the right to use religious criteria when hiring. The employees said that there is really nothing religious about what World Vision does; they feed starving children, and that is not inherently religious (which by itself is a pretty stunning insight into what goes on at World Vision). Since there is no practical difference between World Vision and the Red Cross, World Vision can’t claim that you have to believe in the deity of Jesus to work there, the employees argued.

The courts disagreed, saying that any non-profit that self-identifies as religious can in essence discriminate on the basis of religion in the hiring process.

The employees appealed, and eventually the 9th Circuit Court ruled that a non-profit religious group can indeed insist on hiring only people that fully agree with their statement of faith.  The court, based on World Vision’s case, went on to define precisely what kind of organizations are allowed to discriminate based upon religion in their hiring. To claim that ability the company must:

  1. Call itself religious. This is what the court called “self-identify.” In other words, this is a protection only to groups that overtly declare that what they are doing is connected to their religious beliefs. This first criteria is not held to an outside standard; it is based solely on how the company presents itself.
  2. Promote itself as religious. To be allowed to only hire people of a certain religion, the company must not only call itself religious, it must promote itself as religious. It needs to attract customers (or donors) based on the fact it is overtly religious.
  3. Act consistently with its religion. This is the most important of the three, and the most subjective. The religious organization must conduct business in a way that is consistent with its own self-declared beliefs.

Taken together, these three explain why the Christian bookstore in town is allowed to hire only Christians. It is a freedom for which we partially owe thanks to World Vision.

But with that said, understand what World Vision did in its announcement last week: they specifically worded it in such a way to highlight point 3. They said that it was consistent with evangelical beliefs to be in a same-sex monogamous relationship. Since the Christian church has so much confusion over the issue, Richard Stearns (World Vision’s president) said, then how could a Christian aide organization claim that a refusal to hire a practicing homosexual was consistent with evangelical Christianity?

Notice that the nature of their announcement—especially given the history of World Vision in the courts—had the potential to undercut religious freedom for others as well. This was not simply a case of World Vision saying that they wanted to make a change. They were saying that evangelical Christianity had changed to such a point that they were no longer acting consistently with their beliefs by excluding homosexuals form employment.

Obviously this decision would have had an adverse effect on other similar organizations. If World Vision—which has essentially a basic evangelical statement of faith—says that same-sex marriage is compatible with their beliefs, how could other organizations with similar evangelical statements claim that homosexuality is sinful? And given the fact that World Vision was the defendant in the case that gave these groups the right to hire only those of like-faith, the door would have been opened for legal challenges across the board.

Had World Vision not recapitulated, it could have shifted the legal burden to organizations to justify why a same-sex marriage is outside of evangelical beliefs.

The fact is though, World Vision did withdraw their plans (it remains to be seen if their course reversal is enough to keep those law suits at bay for a little longer). As an organization, they will no doubt be permanently harmed by this. Governments—which provide much of their funding—are now likely to balk because their views on marriage are so public. Many evangelicals are probably going to turn to other charities, and of those that dropped their support last week, its unclear how many of them will reinstate it.

What does this mean for the long term? Tomorrow we will look at some lessons and biblical principles from this affair.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.