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Judge Hands World Vision a Defeat in Employment Case

The federal case is one of several around the country right now where courts are trying to balance nondiscrimination statutes with religious freedom.
Judge Hands World Vision a Defeat in Employment Case
Image: Wikimedia Commons
World Vision's US headquarters in Washington.

A federal judge in Washington State has ruled that the Christian humanitarian aid organization World Vision unlawfully discriminated against a woman in a same-sex marriage when it rescinded a job offer for a customer service position.

District judge James Robart concluded in a 47-page order on November 28 that the organization’s “policy” of recognizing marriage as between one man and one woman counts as discrimination under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. Robart’s order is not a final ruling in the case but means the issue would go to trial to determine damages. The attorneys for World Vision said they are considering their next steps.

This is among the first cases in the country to deal with the religious fallout of the 2020 US Supreme Court ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, where the court ruled that Title VII applies to gender identity and sexual orientation. Title VII has an exemption for religious employers to hire based on beliefs, and federal courts have also established the ministerial exception, which shields religious organizations from lawsuits over their hiring and firing of faith leaders.

This year the World Vision case has gone through twists and turns, reflecting judges trying to navigate a new area of law, according to lawyers observing from the outside. Robart had first ruled in favor of World Vision this summer before later vacating his own ruling and siding with the plaintiff, Aubry McMahon.

“The fact that the court here oscillated showed that this is a close question. Other courts would come out different ways,” said John Melcon, an attorney with Sherman & Howard who handles religious employment cases and is a former law clerk in the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals. “This particular opinion is long overall, but the legal analysis is pretty short.”

Back in 2010, three World Vision employees sued the organization under Title VII after they were fired for their lack of belief in the deity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity. World Vision won that case, but in 2023 a case about sexual orientation turns out to be thornier for federal courts than the doctrine of the Trinity.

Both sides in this case agree on what happened: World Vision, whose US arm is a $1.4 billion organization, extended a job offer to Aubry McMahon to be a customer service representative interfacing with donors. McMahon shared that she was married to a woman, prompting World Vision’s human resources office to explain its position on the issue and withdraw the job offer.

World Vision has written standards of conduct to “clarify expectations and assist candidates/employees in deciding whether or not [World Vision] is the right place for them to serve the Lord.” The standards say that biblical sexuality is expressed “solely within a faithful marriage between a man and a woman.” The organization has history here: In 2014, it briefly announced it would hire people in same-sex marriages before reversing its position two days later.

“I think every Christian organization will continue to deal with this sensitive issue,” president Richard Stearns said at the time. “The board will continue to talk about this issue for many board meetings to come.”

After World Vision rescinded her job offer in 2021, McMahon sued, alleging discrimination under Title VII.

In June of this year, Robart issued a judgment in World Vision’s favor citing the church autonomy doctrine, through which religious organizations are shielded from government interference in their internal decisions. But McMahon asked for reconsideration.

The judge then reversed his own decision, agreeing that he had “erred” in applying the church autonomy doctrine to a non-ministerial employee. World Vision contended she would have been a “ministerial” employee and a part of the organization’s ministry work, with the job description including prayer with donors. Robart disagreed.

“Applying the ministerial exception to the principally administrative customer service representative position would expand the exception beyond its intended scope, erasing any distinction between roles with mere religious components and those with ‘key’ ministerial responsibilities,” he wrote.

He concluded: “On reconsideration, the court agreed that Ms. McMahon suffered an adverse employment action based on a facially discriminatory employer policy.”

Constitutional lawyer Carl Esbeck said that a judge can correct his or her rulings until the court loses jurisdiction under appeal.

“It is certainly unusual what occurred here, but within proper civil procedure,” Esbeck said about the judge reversing his own orders.

If the case ends up at the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over this district court, Melcon feels optimistic for World Vision. The Ninth Circuit has a promising recent track record on religious exercise cases, he noted, issuing a major ruling in favor of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes this year after the organization was denied access to public schools on the grounds that it was in violation of nondiscrimination policies.

In another case last week, a federal district court in Texas ruled in favor of a religious business owner, Braidwood Management, regarding these same civil rights issues under Bostock. The court said Braidwood had federal religious freedom protections to not hire people in same-sex marriages.

A more similar case to the World Vision one is further along in the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals: Billard v. Diocese of Charlotte. A Catholic school did not renew the contract of a teacher after he publicly shared about entering a same-sex marriage. Similarly to the World Vision case, the employee argued that he was not carrying out the religious mission of the school in his work, so the school did not have the religious exemptions it would normally enjoy. The Fourth Circuit heard arguments in the case this fall and will issue a ruling anytime.

“These questions about the intersection of religious liberty and nondiscrimination law, those still need to be worked out in the appellate courts and ultimately the US Supreme Court,” said Melcon.

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