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"Concerns over government funding had no impact on this decision," said Stearns, noting that World Vision caps federal funding at 35 percent of its cash revenues. "We fought for the whole Christian community, reminding USAID that faith-based organizations have a religious exemption and are not required to follow government hiring guidelines.

"If the U.S. government ever requires us to give up our religious hiring rights in exchange for grants, we would walk away from U.S. grants. World Vision's ministry is not for sale."

World Vision's 2010 victory before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on faith-based hiring practices was watched closely by many Christian organizations (500 people signed up within 24 hours for a related ECFA webinar in April 2010). World Vision general counsel Steve McFarland later gave a series of ECFA webinars advising how other ministries could best structure their statements of faith to defend their hiring practices.

Yet Stearns said World Vision is not suggesting other ministries should now follow its lead.

"We made this decision for our organization based on who we are. Every organization has to come to its own conclusion," he said. "We are still passionate about protecting religious hiring rights—making sure that every Christian organization gets to decide this issue for themselves and not have the government decide it for them." (The latest example: World Vision's amicus brief on Hobby Lobby's Supreme Court case against Obamacare's contraceptive mandate.)

"We're not doing this for any legal reasons," he said. "If we wanted to, we would fight another battle on this all the way to the Supreme Court."

So the question becomes: Will supporters, particularly theologically conservative ones, let World Vision adopt a neutral stance on same-sex marriage? One of the first prominent voices out of the gate: Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, who tweeted, "I'm glad Carl Henry didn't live to see this," and promptly penned a reaction, concluding: "World Vision is a good thing to have, unless the world is all you can see."

Maintaining neutrality on such divisive issues is proving increasingly tricky for Christian organizations with broad coalitions. The most recent example is Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, which has declared neutrality on abortion, same-sex marriage, and guns as it seeks to encompass more Christians yet preserve its diverging base of 2.5 million Lutherans. Yet Thrivent's theologically conservative wing has not been pleased.

And the policy change comes as World Vision has reduced its U.S. workforce by 10 percent over the past 15 months as expenses have risen and government grants have decreased, reportsThe News Tribune in nearby Tacoma, Wash. "The last 12 to 24 months have been among the most challenging of any we have ever faced," Stearns wrote to 408,000 donors in a January letter that marked "the first time Stearns had sent out a letter asking child sponsors to increase their giving due to cutbacks," the newspaper reported.

Stearns hopes World Vision will not experience similar division like Thrivent and risk losing conservative supporters as a result.

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