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Court: World Vision can Hire, Fire Based on Faith

The Ninth Circuit ruled that the humanitarian group is a religious organization under the law.

The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals handed down a ruling this afternoon allowing the Christian humanitarian organization World Vision to base its hiring decisions on matters of religious belief.

Ninth Circuit Judge Diarmuid F. O'Scannlain authored the three-judge panel's majority opinion, which declares World Vision a "religious organization" and therefore exempt from the rules on hiring practices that Congress set down in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, mainly because it is a nonprofit entity which self-identifies as religious.

"This is a significant victory for World Vision's religious hiring rights," said Dean Owen, World Vision's director of media relations. "The right of faith-based organizations to hire people who are co-religionists, who are of their own faith, has been law in this country for nearly 50 years."

Three former World Vision employees, Silvia Spencer, Ted Youngberg, and Vicki Hulse, sued after World Vision fired them in 2006 for disagreeing with central tenets of the organization's Statement of Faith. As O'Scannlain notes, everyone involved agreed that the three employees were fired for religious reasons. The question was whether World Vision qualified for the religious exemption to the Civil Rights Act, which normally prohibits any organization from hiring or firing based on religious beliefs.

The former employees asserted that both law and legal precedent limited "religious organizations" to "churches, synagogues, and the like." The Ninth Circuit, who produced some of the precedents they pointed to, disagreed.

"If Congress had intended to restrict the exemption to ‘[c]hurches, and entities similar to churches' it could have said so," Judge O'Scannlain's opinion said. "Because Congress did not, some religious corporations, associations, and societies that are not churches must fall within the exemption."

The majority opinion refused to address certain thorny questions, such as whether or not World Vision's humanitarian work is an inherently religious activity. Judge O'Scannlain's opinion said that it would be "constitutionally troublesome" for the court to attempt to decide what sort of activity is religious and what is not. When the employees alleged that World Vision is not a religious group because it offers aid to people regardless of their own religion, O'Scannalin chose to accept World Vision's own assertion that "providing humanitarian aid to all in need, regardless of religious belief, is a tenet of its faith."

Judge O'Scannlain held that a "nonprofit entity" qualifies as religious if it "1) is organized for a self-identified religious purpose… 2) is engaged in activity consistent with, and in furtherance of, those religious purposes, and 3) holds itself out to the public as religious." World Vision, O'Scannlain ruled, meets these criteria.

"Our Christian faith has been the foundation of our work since we were established in 1950," Owen said to CT this afternoon, "and we believe that the hiring policy of the US offices of World Vision…is vital to our integrity as part of our mission."

In a concurring opinion, Judge Andrew J. Kleinfeld agreed that World Vision qualified for the religious exemption but disagreed with one of O'Scannlain's criteria. Kleinfeld argued that O'Scannlain's focus on groups with nonprofit status could hurt religious groups too small to incorporate and might allow secular nonprofits with "church affiliations" to discriminate unfairly.

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Marsha S. Berzon held that World Vision's humanitarian focus leaves it in the cold as far as the Civil Rights Act is concerned: "Congress used the terms ‘religious corporation, association . . . or society' as they were commonly understood: to describe a church or other group organized for worship, religious study, or the dissemination of religious doctrine."

World Vision is not sure if the other side plans to appeal, but sees the Ninth Circuit decision as very significant for groups across the faith spectrum.

"This is a very significant victory, not just for World Vision but for any religious organization—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, whatever—that hires people of the same faith," Owen said.

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