Nine judges of the U.S. Supreme Court last week affirmed the right of humanitarian aid organization World Vision to hire only Christian staff by declining to review a lower court ruling in favor of World Vision. The Spencer v. World Vision suit had challenged the organization's employment policy of hiring only those who shared in its Christian beliefs.
"I am pleased, relieved and gratified with the court's action," said World Vision's U.S. president, Richard Stearns, in a statement. "After four years of litigation, we at World Vision U.S. may now put this matter behind us, and continue our policy of hiring only Christians."
But the decision was a long time in coming.
History of the Case
As a requirement for employment, Silvia Spencer, Ted Youngberg and Vicki Hulse had acknowledged their agreement and compliance with World Vision's statement of faith upon being hired. In November 2006, however, the three were terminated by World Vision after an internal investigation determined Spencer, Youngberg and Hulse did not believe in the deity of Jesus Christ and denied the doctrine of the Trinity ("There is one God, eternally existent in three persons: Father, Son and the Holy Spirit), a fundamental tenant of the organization's core values.
Claiming discrimination, the disgruntled employees filed a complaint against the Federal Way-based humanitarian aid organization in 2007. The lower court granted World Vision a summary judgment and, in 2009, the plaintiffs appealed the district court's decision.
Judges found the reason for firing was not in dispute. On August 23, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled 2-1 that World Vision was a “religious organization” and therefore exempt from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars religious discrimination in hiring.
The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) filed an amicus brief that presented a legal framework for determining whether an organization qualified as religious and argued that World Vision fell within the Title VII religious exemption. The Christian Legal Society, Center for Public Justice, Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, Samaritan's Purse and Association of Gospel Rescue Missions also joined the brief.
“Spencer v. World Vision, Inc., confirms the fundamental right of religious organizations, protected by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to hire staff who shares their biblical understanding,” said Carl H. Esbeck of the NAE Legal Counsel. “No one questions the right of secular groups to hire staff who support the organization’s purpose. Religious organizations deserve the same protection.”
World Vision contends the right of religious organizations to hire people who share common beliefs and values is one of the great freedoms of a democracy. Stearns says the action by the U.S. Supreme Court protects this right for future generations and "represents a major victory for the freedom of all religious organizations to hire employees who share the same faith -- whether Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian or any other religion."
While the Supreme Court opted not to hear the Spencer v. World Vision case, it faces five other employment-related cases. The court’s denial of the World Vision lawsuit could impact the rulings.
Impact of Future Supreme Court Cases
On October 5, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church School v. EEOC. For the first time in its history, the case brings the so-called “ministerial exception” doctrine before the high court. The bench will consider whether or not Cheryl Perich, a teacher at Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church School in Michigan, should be considered a minister.
In 1999 Perich was retained as a “contract teacher.” After completing several religious continuing-education courses, she received permanent “teacher” status -- meaning she could be dismissed only for cause. Perich mainly taught secular subjects like math and science, but also instructed a religion class four days a week as well as overseeing an occasional chapel service.
In 2004 she took a medical leave of absence and was eventually diagnosed with, and treated for, narcolepsy -- a sleep disorder that causes excessive sleepiness and frequent daytime sleep attacks. Eventually cleared by her doctor to continue her teaching duties, Perich contacted her superiors, but administrators of the Lutheran Church Missouri-Synod school threatened termination because they didn’t see her fit to return. In response, the fourth-grade teacher threatened to sue for violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Lawyers for the school said Perich was considered a commissioned minister, giving her “ministerial exemption” status, which exempts religious organizations to follow anti-discrimination laws.
In an interview with National Public Radio, Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism said, “It seems all of us, even those of us who are deeply committed to civil rights, to protection of disability rights, to preventing retaliation for claims believe strongly that church autonomy and the ministerial exception are indispensable to religious freedom.”
In a report on the case, scholars with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life suggest a Supreme Court decision that broadly favors the government and Perich would likely shrink the ministerial exception, limiting it to narrow circumstances that involve religious questions.
“The lack of even one prior Supreme Court decision on the doctrine makes it difficult to predict how the court ultimately will rule, but the Hosanna-Tabor case has the potential to change the ministerial exception, perhaps quite significantly,” the report said.
Legal experts say only time will tell how the Spencer v. World Vision case will influence future cases like Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church School v. EEOC.
“It is a precedent for other circuits to use across the country,” John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, told Crosswalk.com. “It would great, however, if the Supreme Court would decide in favor of groups like World Vision. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals made a very good decision; what we need now is a uniform decision across the United States. Hopefully someday the Supreme Court will decide in favor, but for now we do have a good precedent."
Russ Jones is a 20-year award winning journalist and correspondent. He is co-publisher of various Christian news sites, such as ChristianPress.com, and a media consultant. He is also a freelance correspondent for the American Family Radio Network, Crosswalk.com and various Christian TV networks. Jones holds degrees from the University of Missouri-Columbia and St. Paul School of Theology. Russ enjoys keeping his mind engaged in the academic arena teaching subjects like Introduction to World Religions, Intro to Mass Communication, Ethics, Death and Dying and Biblical Literature. Russ is married to Jackie and together they have four children. He may be reached at [email protected].
Publication date: October 10, 2011