Religion in the Workplace

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals today upheld Christian-based aid organization World Vision’s practice of hiring – and retaining – only those who affirm the organization’s statement of faith.

Three former employees filed a lawsuit for wrongful termination when World Vision fired the employees after determining they no longer believed in the deity of Jesus Christ nor in the Trinity.

The legal issues in this case are many and complex:

  • whether religious-based groups have the right to hire only those of their own faith
  • whether religious-based nonprofits that receive government funds should be able to hire only those of their own faith when using government funds
  • whether employees who are performing satisfactorily in a secular capacity should face the possibility of losing their job solely because of religious beliefs

Dissenting judge Marsha Berzon writes that Title VII “makes a narrow exemption for institutions devoted to prayer and religious instruction, but expanding that exemption to nonprofit organizations tips the balance “toward a society in which employers could self-declare as religious enclaves from which dissenters can be excluded despite their ability to do the assigned secular work as well as religiously acceptable employees.”

World Vision is a Federal Way organization; I drive past it when I go to visit my sister. I’ve had friends apply for work there unsuccessfully because of the religion issue.

My personal opinion? Even a private organization is subject to equal opportunity employment hiring law, unless the job specifically requires professional practice of a particular religious faith. A pastor or director of religious education? Sure, they must be Christian, and of the right make and model. But the church secretary and accountant? It shouldn’t matter one bit.

The same should apply to organizations like World Vision. If they’re hiring a missionary to spread a specific type of Christian gospel, then by all means, a Christian statement of faith is relevant. If they need an IT professional, a project manager, a logistics assistant, again, the faith issue shouldn’t matter, and under EEO law, should be an off limits topic. The use of federal funds should make that process even more rigorous.

I realize that’s an overly simplistic view of the world, and that the law is far more complicated than that. Still, I don’t want my tax dollars being spent on humanitarian support that come a side of proselytizing or prejudicial, discriminatory hiring practices – I’d prefer they went to strictly secular organizations instead.

You see, I don’t believe America is a Christian nation. (Sorry, Christian friends!) I passionately believe we’re a pluralistic nation that happens to have a Christian majority – which I am only marginally a part of – but we are also a nation with a strong commitment to freedom, tolerance and mutual respect.

6 Responses to “Religion in the Workplace”

  1. Frances Says:

    Wow – yeah, I’ll let you blog the heavy stuff. I’ve spent two hours playing with a blog about a REALLY bad hair cut. http://youstarthere.blogspot.com/2010/08/bad-hair-cuts-and-dodging-bullets.html

    I get what you are saying, I REALLY do – and I’m not a big fan of a certain element of Christians these days because I feel they are regressing in to a state of intolerance of others not seen since pre-1900′s.

    However, I think you need to hire whoever you feel is right for the job – and some times it requires discrimination. I’ll be honest, as a new Business Owner… if someone came in with a “Team Jesus” shirt, it would probably influence my decision to hire them.

    I know it’s a slippery slope this ruling added to, and I think things are going to get really ugly in this country really soon, but I think people have to come to the right decisions on their own – and not have government shoved down their throat all the time.

  2. Janiece Says:

    Amen, sister.

    ::smirk::

    If companies or non-profits are going to feed at the public trough, then they need to put on their big girl panties and comply with federal law when it comes to hiring practices. Don’t want the federal government to tell you what to do? The answer is simple – don’t be a hypocrite and quit taking federal money.

  3. Eric Says:

    Having skimmed through the actual opinion–reading it takes more brainpower than I’m willing to devote to it right now–I think it’s actually much simpler and less controversial than the press makes it out to be.

    Title VII includes an exemption to religious organizations. World Vision either is a religious organization or it isn’t. If it is, then it may discriminate on the basis of religion regardless of whether or not a particular job is “secular.” If it isn’t, then it can’t, even if a particular job is religious.

    There are secular jobs even in an obviously-religious organization. When I was waiting for my Bar Exam results to come back, I went to a temp agency, and the temp agency placed me in the office of a Lutheran Church. Yes, I was a church secretary for several weeks. They loved me, I was the only person they’d ever had, I think, who knew how their rapidly-aging computer worked. We had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” relationship–they never asked about my religious beliefs, and I didn’t advertise, though if they’d asked I would’ve answered honestly. They were nice enough people, and if my atheism had been an issue, I would’ve completely understood. Anyway, I bring it up because I was certainly doing a secular–or at least secular-ish (I guess running off copies of the Sunday school lesson was vaguely proselytizing at a remove, though I don’t feel hypocritical about it–I needed the money)–job, though I don’t think there’s any doubt that the church was and is a religious institution for Title VII purposes.

    The dispute between the majority and the dissent in the World Vision case is over whether World Vision, which even the dissent describes (quoting World Vision’s website) as “a Christian humanitarian organization dedicated to working with children, families and their communities worldwide to reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty and injustice” counts as a religious organization for Title VII purposes. I’m inclined to agree with the majority, frankly, particularly in light of the fact that plaintiff-appellants evidently signed some sort of statement indicating agreement with the Apostles’ Creed when they were first employed and it appears that Vision’s non-denominational Christianity and adherence to the Creed is placed front-and-center in their corporate materials and employee expectations, regardless of how much of their actual charitable work can be described in secular terms.

    Now, there may be other issues that are more complicated and outside the scope of the case. I don’t like any religious organization receiving Federal funds, for instance, and I find the claim that World Vision receives 25% of its support from the Federal Government offensive. On the other hand, I also have misgivings about the tax-exempt status of religious organizations, so I’m possibly the wrong person to talk to about that sort of thing. And it might go without saying, but I agree with Janiece’s sentiments about organizations that choose to apply for Federal funds.

    More relevantly, however, World Vision’s tax status and/or receipt of Federal funds is primarily a political question at this time, not a legal one. While there is a legal angle–does Federal funding of religious entities violate the First Amendment separation of church and state?–the legal question only exists insofar as Congress and the President send funds to charitable religious organizations, a policy which has been rather popular and resilient over the last ten years. I may feel that an entity receiving Federal funds should comply with Federal law, but the primary issue is whether elected officials are funding those organizations in the first place; constitutional objections to President Bush’s faith-based initiatives agenda aside, it was a popular action by Bush and has been continued in modified form by President Obama, and while Congress has strategically under-funded OFBCI and the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (the renamed successor agency under Obama), they haven’t completely barred funding, either.

  4. Nathan Says:

    What Eric said. (Erudite, ain’t I?)

  5. Holy Says:

    I blogged about World Vision and their hiring practices a couple of years back and had a heated and healthy debate with a mutual Christian friend. I get her point but seriously – the only other place I’ve seen such discriminatory hiring practices was in the UAE (their ads specified young, pretty girls only need apply).

    I giggle all the time that there’s this so-called seperation of church and state in this country. It couldn’t be further from the truth.

    But I’m guilty of the same – we sometimes preferred to hire local Christian housestaff in Pakistan because they didn’t take as many breaks to pray. (Yes, I’m going to hell in a handbasket – hope it’s a thrill ride, at least).

  6. Jeri Says:

    Ms. Schmidt – you were the person I was referring to re: World Vision hiring. :) And agreed on the separation not existing – it’s more of an unhealthy, codependent relationship.