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A Christian charity under fire

LAW | Judge says World Vision may have to hire gay employees


A staff member helps people in a community affected by the 2021 Haiti earthquake. Courtesy of World Vision

A Christian charity under fire
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On July 24, a federal judge in Washington state gave a green light to a discrimination lawsuit brought against Christian aid group World Vision by a lesbian employee applicant. In a ruling allowing the case to proceed, the court suggested the charity may be required by law to hire those in same-sex relationships, despite World Vision’s Biblically based standards of conduct. That conclusion could have far-reaching ramifications for other religious nonprofits.

Six weeks earlier, U.S. District Judge James L. Robart had dismissed the case brought by Aubry McMahon, a woman in a same-sex marriage. In his June 12 order, Robart had agreed with World Vision that the church autonomy doctrine—derived from the First Amendment and meant to guard against judicial meddling in theological or ecclesiastical issues—prevented judicial inquiry into the organization’s religiously motivated decision to rescind an offer of employment to McMahon.

But in an unusual reversal, the judge in July ruled the church autonomy doctrine was not applicable after all, because World Vision’s sexual conduct policy discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation. “If Ms. McMahon was a man married to a woman, she would not have run afoul of World Vision’s Biblical marriage policy and World Vision would not have rescinded her job offer,” Robart wrote. “Plainly speaking, Ms. McMahon was treated differently because of her sex, sexual orientation, and marital status.”

The judge rejected World Vision’s argument that its policy upholding Biblical marriage addressed conduct, not status. “If World Vision had an abstinent employees only policy, such a policy would likely be a facially neutral, conduct-based policy,” he wrote. “However, World Vision’s policy forbids employing anyone who engages in sexual conduct outside of a heterosexual marriage.”

World Vision is the largest child-­focused Christian service agency in the world. Its U.S. branch’s operating revenue, much of it from private ­contributions, topped $1.4 billion in 2022. With international counterparts, it works in about 100 countries and has a staff of around 33,000.

The organization’s employment standards have been challenged before. In 2010, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected religious discrimination claims by three World Vision workers dismissed for denying the divinity of Christ and disavowing the Trinity. Some international counterparts of World Vision—which operate independently of the stateside World Vision—do not have those same strictures, hiring non­believers and employing those in same-sex relationships in countries less protective of religious liberties.

Ironically, World Vision itself flip-flopped on the issue of gay employees nearly a decade ago. On March 24, 2014, former World Vision President Richard Stearns announced the organization would allow its U.S. branch to hire employees in same-sex marriages, only to retract the decision two days later after heated criticism. In a statement to supporters, Stearns and board chairman Jim Beré confessed error, pledging that the organization “stands firmly on the biblical view of marriage.”

If its vigorous defense against McMahon’s lawsuit is any indication, the U.S. organization remains committed to that standard. It’s only round 1 in the litigation. A trial, another round of motions, or an appeal will come next—and other U.S. charities will likely be watching closely.


Steve West

Steve is a reporter for WORLD. A graduate of World Journalism Institute, he worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor in Raleigh, N.C., where he resides with his wife.

@slntplanet

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