World Vision loses third round in LGBTQ hiring case | WORLD
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World Vision loses third round in LGBTQ hiring case

A court rejects ministry’s defenses to a charge of sex discrimination

A sign for the World Vision headquarters in Federal Way, Wash. Associated Press/Photo by Ted S. Warren

World Vision loses third round in LGBTQ hiring case

In what could have been a knockout punch, World Vision survived to fight another day in its battle to preserve the integrity of its mission. A court ruling this week—should it stand—would force the Christian aid group to hire gay employees, and it could also pack a serious blow for churches and other faith-based ministries that adhere to a Biblical standard for marriage and sexuality.

In January 2021, the Seattle-area ministry withdrew a job offer to Aubry McMahon for a customer service representative position after the ministry discovered she was in a same-sex marriage. Had she been hired, McMahon would have been in violation of the ministry’s standards of conduct, which confine sexual conduct to marriage between one man and one woman.

Earlier this week, a federal judge upheld his earlier order, rejecting a second motion by the ministry to end the case and affirming a July order that rejected a series of ministry defenses based on its religious character and beliefs.

McMahon sued World Vision in July 2021, claiming that it unlawfully discriminated against her because of her sex, sexual orientation, and marital status in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD).

Initially, in June 2023, U.S. District Judge James L. Robart sided with World Vision, agreeing that the church autonomy doctrine barred interference in the ministry’s employment decisions. That doctrine, derived from the First Amendment, ensures that courts do not second-guess the theological positions of churches or ministries or interfere with their internal governance.

But just six weeks later, Robart reversed course, backing McMahon in a flip-flop ruling that threw out the church autonomy doctrine. On Tuesday, Robart dug in, rejecting every defense the ministry offered.

“World Vision rescinded Ms. McMahon’s job offer pursuant to a policy that facially discriminates on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, and marital status in violation of Title VII and WLAD,” wrote Robart. He concluded that the ministry was liable for discrimination.

Both federal and state law contain religious employer exemptions. World Vision attorneys argued that the exemptions shielded the ministry’s decisions about who qualifies for employment from all claims of discrimination, but the court concluded the exemptions were limited to claims of religious discrimination.

But the court did not wrestle with whether McMahon, who apparently signed the organization’s statement of faith, had beliefs so out of line with the Christian faith as to be disqualified based on her religious beliefs. McMahon did not raise any claim of discrimination based on her religious beliefs, and the court declined to construe her claim as one about religious discrimination.

That made all the difference, said Brad Jacob, a law professor and religious liberty expert at Regent University School of Law. “The judge has decided this isn’t about sharing World Vision’s convictions about sexual morality, it’s about your being discriminated against because you are a gay person,” he said. “And on that characterization, I think, turns everything.”

The court also disagreed with World Vision that the ministerial exception, another First Amendment–derived principle, shielded it from liability. The exception protects a religious organization from court review of its employment decisions when the employee serves vital religious functions.

World Vision attorneys argued that, in interacting with donors as a customer service representative, McMahon would serve as the face of the organization and would be expected to pray with donors when appropriate and encourage their spiritual growth. She would also lead weekly team devotions at times and, if willing, organization-wide chapel services.

Yet the court concluded that since ministry responsibilities are broadly shared with all employees, the ministerial exception could not apply. “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,” Robart concluded.

Jacob disagreed with Robart’s characterization of the ministerial exception, noting that just because religious duties are widely shared among employees does not mean the exception does not apply. Employees need not be uniquely religious but just serve vital religious functions.

Robart also rejected the ministry’s argument that not being in a same-sex marriage was a “bona fide occupational qualification reasonably necessary to the normal operation” of the ministry under Title VII. “Nothing in the record indicates that being in a same-sex marriage affects one’s ability to place and field donor calls, converse with donors, pray with donors, update donor information, upsell World Vision programs, or participate in devotions and chapel,” Robart concluded.

From there, the judge quickly dispensed with World Vision’s argument that it was protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion, finding that the anti-discrimination laws were neutral and generally applicable. Since the state and federal government had rational reasons for enacting the laws, Robart concluded they could be constitutionally applied to the ministry.

Tuesday’s order sets the stage for trial, but only over how much the ministry owes McMahon in damages. So far, the ruling only affects World Vision but may prove persuasive to other judges. It may also cause other ministries to beef up the religious components of their job and title descriptions. World Vision attorneys have not yet indicated whether the ministry will appeal the ruling.

Should the case reach the Supreme Court, Jacob is hopeful: “I tend to think the Supreme Court is going to treat this in a much more sympathetic way to World Vision than what we saw out of this trial judge, that they’d be much more likely to say, ‘This is about beliefs. It’s not about your identity. It’s not about who you are as a person.’”

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.



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