When Sylvia Spencer applied at World Vision's U.S. headquarters near Seattle in 1995, she described herself as a committed Christian.
Asked on an employment form why she wanted to work for the international humanitarian aid organization, Spencer wrote, "Because I would love to work for an organization dedicated to carrying on the Lord's work!"
Another World Vision employee, Vicki Hulse, mentioned her 15 years as a Christian in a résumé attachment when she applied a few years later.
"I recently moved to this area and would very much like to find a place of employment with a Christian organization where I could be of value," Hulse wrote.
Both women signed statements affirming their Christian faith and devoted a decade to World Vision, which serves impoverished children and families in more than 100 countries.
But in November 2006, they and colleague Ted Youngberg were fired. Their offense, as determined by a corporate investigation: The three did not believe that Jesus Christ is fully God and a member of the Trinity.
"They are deeply religious Christians," said Judith Lonnquist, a Seattle attorney who filed a federal discrimination lawsuit on their behalf. "They just don't have the same beliefs that World Vision espouses."
That is the problem, said Steve McFarland, chief legal officer for World Vision. "The employees were discharged because they no longer met an essential job prerequisite: that they genuinely affirm their belief in a statement of orthodox Christian faith as understood by the World Vision board." He said that if World Vision loses the federal discrimination suit, the consequences will be wide-ranging. "This would be a seismic disruption to religious freedom in the U.S., not to mention to the separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches of the government."
World Vision U.S. has become one of the nation's largest faith-based charitable organizations. In 1947, founder Bob Pierce became World Vision's first child sponsor. He started sending $5 a month to a Chinese girl rejected by her family after Pierce shared the gospel with her and she became a Christian. Six decades later, 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.
And to some people, that's a dilemma.
In most cases, Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits private employers from hiring and firing based on religious beliefs. But a 1972 congressional amendment established that churches and religious associations could use faith-based criteria in hiring. That's true even for a position with no inherently religious duties, such as a receptionist, said Ira "Chip" Lupu, a church-state scholar and law professor at the George Washington University Law School.
But can religious groups that receive federal money to provide social services (such as job training or drug treatment counseling) consider a potential employee's religion when making hiring decisions? Lupu said that's the question of the hour.
Some people believe that "hiring on the basis of religion is discriminatory and that the government should never subsidize such discrimination," Lupu said in a church-state primer that he shared with Christianity Today. Others, including many faith-based groups, argue that religion must be taken into account "to maintain the distinctive character and nature of [a group's] religious mission."
L. Martin Nussbaum, a Colorado attorney who defends religious organizations, said the phrase "receive federal funding" is confusing, as it gives the impression that the government provides grants or subsidies to faith-based groups.