Yet the decision is still likely to be regarded as noteworthy by other evangelical ministries. Aside from World Vision's influential size—it took in more than a billion dollars in revenue last year, serves an estimated 100 million people in 100 countries, and ranks among America's top 10 charities overall—World Vision also recently fought for the right of Christian organizations to hire and fire based on faith statements all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court—and won. It also opposed a 2012 attempt by USAID to "strongly encourage" faith-based contractors to stop discriminating against gays and lesbians in order to receive federal funds.
In other words, other Christian organizations look to World Vision for leadership on defending faith hiring practices. Stearns acknowledges this, but wants observers to understand why World Vision is voluntarily changing its own policy.
Stearns said World Vision has never asked about sexual orientation when interviewing job candidates. Instead, the organization screens employees for their Christian faith, asking if they can affirm the Apostles' Creed or World Vision's Trinitarian statement of faith.
Yet World Vision has long had a Christian conduct policy for employees that "holds a very high bar for all manner of conduct," said Stearns. Regarding sexuality activity, World Vision has required abstinence for all single employees, and fidelity for all married employees.
However, World Vision now has staff from more than 50 denominations—a handful of which have sanctioned same-sex marriages or unions in recent years, including the United Church of Christ, The Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Presbyterian Church (USA). Meanwhile, same-sex marriage is now legal in 17 states plus the District of Columbia, and federal judges have struck down bans in five other states (Utah, Texas, Oklahoma, Virginia, and—most recently—Michigan) as well as required Kentucky to recognize such marriages performed in other states. (All six rulings are stayed until the appeals process is complete.)
Stearns said World Vision's board has faced a new question in recent years: "What do we do about someone who applies for a job at World Vision who is in a legal same-sex marriage that may have been sanctioned and performed by their church? Do we deny them employment?
"Under our old conduct policy, that would have been a violation," said Stearns. "The new policy will not exclude someone from employment if they are in a legal same-sex marriage."
Stearns said the new policy reflects World Vision's parachurch and multi-denominational nature.
"Denominations disagree on many, many things: on divorce and remarriage, modes of baptism, women in leadership roles in the church, beliefs on evolution, etc.," he said. "So our practice has always been to defer to the authority and autonomy of local churches and denominational bodies on matters of doctrine that go beyond the Apostles' Creed and our statement of faith. We unite around our [Trinitarian beliefs], and we have always deferred to the local church on these other matters."
The reason the prohibition existed in the first place? "It's kind of a historical issue," said Stearns. "Same-sex marriage has only been a huge issue in the church in the last decade or so. There used to be much more unity among churches on this issue, and that's changed."