The World Vision plaintiffs—one served as an administrative assistant, one worked in telecommunications, and one coordinated furniture needs—said their central duties were nonreligious in nature.
World Vision U.S. has 1,200 employees and a budget that topped $1.2 billion in fiscal year 2009. About $344 million—29 percent of the total—came in the form of taxpayer funds.
A years-long political battle rages over whether religious groups that receive federal money to provide social services should be able to consider a potential employee's religion when making hiring decisions.
"Nothing has changed," Ira "Chip" Lupu, a church-state scholar and law professor at George Washington University Law School, said after the Ninth Circuit ruling.
"What was very interesting to me was that none of the three judges—including the dissenting judge, who would have ruled that World Vision was not a religious organization for purposes of the Title VII exemption—gave any weight whatsoever to the federal funding aspect of the case," Lupu said.
"The entire discussion was about prior judicial decisions that had nothing to do with funding sources, and about the character of World Vision, irrespective of its funds, private or government."
As a result, the decision "just preserves the status quo" and does nothing to bolster or hinder federal funding of faith-based organizations, Lupu said.
Just this week, more than 100 religious organizations sent a letter to every member of Congress claiming that pending legislation would deny religious charities receiving federal grants a fundamental right to hire people who share their faith. Those signing the letter included World Vision, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
In some ways, the Ninth Circuit decision only muddied the waters, said Christopher C. Lund, a law professor at Wayne State University.
"All three judges wrote different opinions," Lund said. "All three judges had different tests about what makes an employer 'religious.' If even one of the judges had been different, the case might have been decided differently. There's a lot of uncertainty here."
That's apparently still the question.
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Previous articles related to faith-based hiring issues in Christianity Today and its sister publications include:
Obama Expands Faith-Based Office | The President maintains Bush's hiring policy and shapes specific priorities for the office. (May 6, 2009)
Was the Bush Faith-Based Initiative a Failure? | Stanley Carlson-Thies, Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance (January 26, 2010)
The Employment Nondiscrimination Act of 2007 | Will this proposed law affect your church employment practices? (February 28, 2008, Your Church)