Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on an individual’s religion. Unless, that is, your employer is a religious organization. When three former employees sued World Vision, the question was whether the Christian charity qualified for the exemption. In a recent decision, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington, answered the question in favor of World Vision.
Employees Affirm and then Disavow Religious Belief
World Vision, Inc., describes itself as “a Christian humanitarian organization dedicated to working with children, families and their communities worldwide to reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty and injustice.” Based near Seattle, Washington, it is the U.S. arm of a group of semiautonomous organizations that engage in relief efforts around the world.
In 2006, World Vision fired three employees. Silvia Spencer had provided various services related to the maintenance and upkeep of technology and facilities. Vicki Hulse had performed administrative tasks such as scheduling and telephone coverage. Ted Youngberg had coordinated shipping and facilities needs and scheduling. Spencer and Hulse had held their jobs for roughly 10 years, and Youngberg had two years of service at the time of their firings.
When they were hired, each of the three employees had submitted a required statement about his or her “relationship with Jesus Christ” and had acknowledged “agreement and compliance” with World Vision’s faith, core values, and mission statement. However, in 2006, World Vision learned that the three had denied the deity of Jesus Christ and disavowed the doctrine of the Trinity (i.e., that God is one being, existing in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit). That was the reason their employment was terminated.
The three filed suit, alleging discrimination based on religion in violation of Title VII. The trial court threw out the case, concluding that World Vision was a religious organization and thus exempt from the ban on religious discrimination in employment. The employees appealed.
Organization “Primarily Religious”?
The question of the religious organization exemption is relatively straightforward in the case of a church, synagogue, mosque, or similar entity. But with a religious-based relief organization, the matter is a bit more complex. The test, according to the court, is “whether the ‘general picture’ of [an] institution is primarily religious or secular.” The determination must be made on the specific facts presented.
The court struggled with the proper analysis for determining whether World Vision should be exempt from Title VII’s religious discrimination prohibitions. The organization insisted that its relief mission was religious in nature. The former employees insisted that it was not. The court ultimately was divided on the issue, with two of the three judges ruling in favor of World Vision.
The court’s opinion identified a three-pronged test for the exemption. An organization meets the test if it:
- is organized for a self-identified religious purpose (as evidenced by articles of incorporation or similar documents);
- is engaged in activity consistent with and in furtherance of the religious purposes; and
- holds itself out to the public as religious.
Those neutral factors were fairly straightforward to apply without embroiling the court in examining esoteric doctrinal matters.
The court found that World Vision was a nonprofit organization despite the fact that its operations were global in scope and its executives received hefty paychecks. Its articles of incorporation identified its primary business as “Chrisian missionary services,” enabling “God’s people . . . to accomplish more quickly and efficiently the Great Commission of advancing the Kingdom of God on earth.” Additional documents committed the organization to a prescribed statement of faith.
The former employees challenged whether World Vision’s activities remained consistent with its avowed religious purposes because it provided services to non-Christians. The court disagreed, finding that the organization’s activities were entirely in line with its Christian mission. World Vision’s outreach to all in need, regardless of religion, was consistent with a tenet of its statement of faith.
And World Vision clearly held itself out to the public as a religious organization, even though it isn’t formally associated with any particular denomination. From its logo (a stylized Christian cross) to the consistent message in its written communications, it identifies itself as Christian. The message is clearly stated to the “committed Christians” it seeks as prospective employees:
Motivated by our faith in Jesus, we serve the poor as a demonstration of God’s unconditional love for all people. Our faith is at the heart of all we do. Foundational to our work is the commitment to a shared faith by staff, volunteers and interns, and a common understanding of how that faith is lived out day-to-day.
New hires are required to affirm their commitment to those principles. Prayer and worship activities are included as part of the workday.
Under all the circumstances, World Vision was deemed a “primarily religious organization.” The employees’ claims were rejected. Spencer v. World Vision, Inc. , Case No. 08-35532 (9th Cir., Aug. 23, 2010).
Religious Organizations Stand on Different Footing
Religious organizations are exempt from the laws prohibiting religious discrimination, but — depending on the circumstances — they may have to comply with other provisions of Title VII. For secular organizations, the challenge is different. You may be called on to accommodate the religious beliefs of your employees and determine whether you can do so without an undue burden on your business. You may also have to hold in check a zealous religious employee who wants to proselytize coworkers. These are complex questions requiring a balancing of rights and obligations, so be sure to get good advice when religious issues arise in your workplace.