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Court sides with World Vision's practice of hiring only Christians

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a ruling that Federal Way-based World Vision is lawful in hiring only Christians.

Three former World Vision employees were fired in 2006 due to their religious beliefs. The group filed a complaint with the U.S. District Court in 2007. That court granted World Vision a summary judgement and, in 2009, the plaintiffs appealed the District Court's decision.

On Aug. 23, the Appeals Court ruled 2-1 that the Christian-based organization is exempt from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars religious discrimination in hiring. Exemptions are given to corporations, associations, educational institutions or societies that can be shown to be "primarily religious," as defined by "religious and secular characteristics." Judges Diarmuid F. O'Scannlain and Andrew J. Kleinfeld ruled in favor of World Vision. Judge Marsha S. Berzon dissented.

"There is no dispute that the employees were fired for religious reasons. For purpose of this appeal, such termination was permissible if — and only if — World vision is a 'religious corporation, association ... or society,'" according to court documents.

Hiring/firing practices

The nonprofit World Vision offers humanitarian aid worldwide. This year alone, World Vision provided aid to Haiti and Pakistan following natural disasters that rocked each country and left its citizens hungry, homeless, ill and impoverished. World Vision serves people of all faiths and uses federal grants, in part, to do so.

The organization makes no attempt to hide its employment criteria. Its website (www.worldvision.org) states: "World Vision U.S. has the right to, and does, hire only candidates who agree with World Vision’s Statement of Faith and/or the Apostles' Creed." The documents describe a relationship with the Christian God and Jesus Christ.

Disgruntled ex-employees

Sylvia Spencer, Ted Youngberg and Vicki Hulse brought the complaint against World Vision after they were terminated from the company for failing to uphold its Christian mission and values. Upon their employment, as outlined by the company's hiring process, they each agreed to live by the Statement of Faith and Apostles' Creed.

In 2006, the organization learned the employees denied the "deity of Jesus Christ" and disavowed the "doctrine of the Trinity," according to court documents. They were fired shortly thereafter. Spencer and Hulse worked for World Vision for roughly 10 years. Youngberg had been with the company for about two years.

Landmark court decision

The plaintiffs' counsel argued that World Vision does not qualify for an exemption from the Civil Rights Act because its primary purpose is humanitarian, not religious.

The court disagreed, finding, based in part on criteria set out in case law, that World Vision's actions are "primarily religious" and its employees' work permits the religious organization to carry on.

"World Vision applauds today's ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, upholding our legally protected practice of hiring people of like-minded faith," reads a World Vision statement in response to the ruling. "Our Christian faith has been the foundation of our work since the organization was established in 1950, and our hiring policy is vital to the integrity of our mission to serve the poor as followers of Jesus Christ."

The judges looked to LeBoon v. Lancaster Jewish Community Center when making their decision. That case presents nine factors to consider when determining if the purpose and character of an entity is primarily religious. Factors include whether the entity operates for profit, whether it produces a secular product, whether it holds itself out to the public as secular or sectarian, and whether the entity's articles of incorporation or other pertinent documents state a religious purpose.

"World Vision is a nonprofit organization whose humanitarian relief efforts flow from a profound sense of religious mission. That mission is evinced in the organization's founding documents. Significantly, World Vision continues to act in accordance with those documents, and it explicitly and intentionally holds itself out to the public as a religious institution. While World Vision is neither owned by nor affiliated with a formally religious entity in the traditional sense, this does not preclude our finding that it is a 'primarily religious' organization and thus eligible for section 2000e-1 exemption," O'Scannlain wrote in the court's opinion.

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