Why Is This Discrimination Allowed?

Sponsor a child. Help fight global poverty. The images are heart-rending. The cost of helping not great. Who isn’t moved by the opportunity to fight the tragedies that afflict youngsters in poverty-stricken and war-affected parts of the world?

Yet, when World Vision — a non-profit charitable organization with revenues of just over a billion dollars that does global relief and development work and has close ties to major evangelical denominations — announced it would hire employees who are in legal same-sex marriages, the outcry was overwhelming.

As David Badash reported on thenewcivilrightsmovement.com, Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, charged the group had “walked away from one of the greatest legacies in Christian ministry, trading a vision to reach the world for the world’s vision of marriage.” Franklin Graham, Billy’s son, termed the decision “offensive, as if supporting sin and sinful behavior can unite the church.”

And there were widespread reports of World Vision supporters calling the group to withdraw their money pledges to the children they sponsored. On March 26, less than two days after its initial policy statement, the group reversed itself.

This is an easy one to condemn. How could anyone moved by the plight of starving children withdraw their support over the question of gay marriage? For our community, it’s hard to imagine how World Vision can be so weak-kneed and craven in the face of such callous hatred for gay people.

But condemning World Vision and its supporters is not my main interest here. What I want to know is how a Washington State-based employer is able to discriminate in this fashion. For that matter, how did the issue of the group hiring employees in legal same-sex marriages even come up?

World Vision, it seems, has federal court approval for the discriminatory way it hires its employees. In 2007, three former employees who worked among its Seattle headquarters staff of 1,200 (a small fraction of its worldwide workforce) sued over the requirement that they sign a statement of faith as a term of employment. The three argued that the organization’s main activities were not religious in nature, but rather involved secular relief and development efforts.

“There’s no ‘Christian’ way of moving furniture or performing secretarial duties,” their attorney told the Seattle Times.

Unfortunately, the courts didn’t see matters that way. In 2010, the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling that found World Vision is a “religious corporation” and therefore exempt from federal and state bans on religious discrimination.

That ruling came despite the fact that nearly 18 percent of the group’s revenues come from federal government sources. That’s right, US taxpayers subsidize World Vision to carry out secular economic activity — worthy though it certainly is — all the while exacting a religious test on its employees and now explicitly refusing to hire some who are legally married in the State of Washington.

Everybody understands that religious groups can rightfully apply religious tests to their religious activities. A Catholic priest cannot be required to marry a Jewish couple and he can also assert a religious objection to marrying a gay couple, even if they go to Mass every week.

The general understanding most of us have, though, is that religious tests do not apply to religiously affiliated organizations engaged in non-religious activities. The specific ways in which that principle plays out, however, are constantly facing court review. The Supreme Court is even considering a challenge brought by a private business to the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that contraception coverage be included in employer healthcare plans. The right wing has gotten considerable mileage out of a New Mexico Supreme Court ruling that a wedding photographer could not deny services to a lesbian couple planning a commitment ceremony.

In two high profile situations from recent years, Catholic Charities in Massachusetts and Illinois withdrew from the adoption business rather than consider gay and lesbian individuals and couples as potential parents. In each of these cases, state funding for the adoption services was a critical factor in dooming Catholic Charities’ goal of staying in the adoption business while continuing to discriminate. It is not certain that without government funding, the services would have been deemed public accommodations subject to anti-discrimination law.

All of this is important to bear in mind as we look to the future of the long-stalled federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act. As we have reported in a series of articles, as proposed now, the bill has a religious exemption broader than that found in most state anti-discrimination laws. One of its primary advocates admitted that it could allow Catholic Charities to deny employment to a gay janitor.

This exemption language is included in what the US Senate passed last year and what the Human Rights Campaign is pushing in the House now. Unless we are content to merely tsk-tsk those who discriminate — rather than taking them to court — it’s time to listen to major legal advocacy groups in the community and amend ENDA. Before it’s too late.