It’s Not Just Evangelicals Who Should Worry About World Vision

When the humanitarian and disaster relief giant World Vision first announced its new short-lived, semi-inclusive policy permitting the hiring of people in  legal same-sex marriages, the evangelical outcry was immense, with many questioning whether they should withdraw their donations from the iconic evangelical institution. Presumably those objecting are less reticent now that World Vision has reverted to the old policy of refusing to hire LGBT people at all.

But its not just World Vision’s donors who contribute to its substantial coffers (in 2012, it brought in more than $1 billion in contributions). World Vision is also a big recipient of federal faith-based funding, which means that taxpayers also are footing the bill for an organization that discriminates based on religion and religious beliefs. In fiscal year 2013, according to a federal government database, World Vision took in nearly $70 million in federal funding.

The reason World Vision gets away with this is rooted in a federal statute familiar to anyone who followed this week’s Supreme Court arguments in the Hobby Lobby case: the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

In the Hobby Lobby context, civil rights advocates have expressed concern that a high court ruling for Hobby Lobby could open the door for further discriminatory rules and practices, such as the state “religious freedom” bills that would permit discrimination based on sexual orientation and other factors in public accommodations.

Religious organizations, such as churches, synagogues, and mosques, are exempt from the provisions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in employment. The reasoning for that exemption is simple: you wouldn’t, of course, require a synagogue to hire a Catholic as a rabbi. 

Three years ago, World Vision successfully fought off a lawsuit by three former employees, who charged they were let go because they no longer could affirm World Vision’s statement of faith, which included a statement of belief in the diety of Jesus Christ and in the Trinity. The Supreme Court let stand the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that World Vision was a religious institution entitled to the same exemption as a church.

Federal programs, though, can require compliance with Title VII by organizations receiving federal funding. Although civil rights advocates were critical of the pre-Bush Charitable Choice program because it contained insufficient safeguards against employment discrimination by federally-funded faith-based charities, the Bush administration deployed RFRA to further cement an exemption for these organizations from employment discrimination law. That interpretation is laid out in an Office of Legal Counsel memo that is actually known as the World Vision Memo.

RFRA, that memo concluded, “protects this right to prefer co-religionists for employees even if the statute that authorizes the funding program generally forbids consideration of religion in employment decisions by grantees.” (emphasis mine)

During his 2008 presidential campaign, President Obama promised to end that policy, stating in a speech that “if you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can’t discriminate against them – or against the people you hire – on the basis of their religion.” Notwithstanding that promise, the policy is still in place.

Since 2009, a coalition of civil liberties and religious organizations has contested Obama’s failure to live up to his campaign promise. In their first letter to Attorney General Eric Holder in September 2009, 58 signatories argued that the Bush OLC’s interpretation of RFRA “provides for a blanket override of statutory nondiscrimination provisions” and  “is erroneous and threatens core civil rights and religious freedom protections.” Further:

The OLC Memo wrongly asserts that RFRA is “reasonably construed” to require that a federal agency categorically exempt a religious organization from an explicit federal nondiscrimination provision tied to a grant program.  Although the OLC Memo’s conclusion is focused on one Justice Department program, its overly-broad and questionable interpretation of RFRA has been cited by other Federal agencies and extended to other programs and grants.  The guidance in the OLC Memo is not justified under applicable legal standards and threatens to tilt policy toward an unwarranted end that would damage civil rights and religious liberty.

This coalition, also known as the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination, has long awaited a change in Obama administration policy on this front. As I wrote in 2012:

The 2007 OLC memo is also known as the “World Vision memo,” after the faith-based organization which receives millions in federal funds, and requires all US employees to sign its Christian Statement of Faith and/or The Apostles Creed. World Vision’s president, Richard Stearns, has been an outspoken critic of ending what is euphemistically known as “co-religionist hiring,” and has a coalition of conservative faith-based advocates backing him. After Obama pledged on the campaign trail in 2008 to reverse the Bush policy, evangelicals were up in arms; one claimed the candidate, to quell the outcry, promised evangelical leaders on the eve of the election that he would leave the discriminatory policy in place. Obama later appointed Stearns to the first Advisory Council to the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. In a 2011 letter to Obama, Stearns joined a group of conservative religious leaders praising Obama for his “steadfast commitment to religious freedom.” The letter was harshly critical of CARD’s interpretation of the OLC memo, arguing that the memo “affirms that, faced with a statutory ban on religious staffing in a particular federal program, a religious organization has the opportunity to demonstrate that abandonment of its religious staffing practices in order to participate in the program wrongfully imposes on it a ‘substantial burden’ that the government need not—and should not—impose.” (Obama’s “steadfast commitment to religious freedom” has somehow been forgotten in the contraception wars.)

In response to Congressional questioning in 2012, the Department of Justice said it has continued the Bush policy, enabling federally-funded faith-based organizations to request “an exemption under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to enable it to prefer coreligionists in employment, notwithstanding a statutory prohibition on religious employment discrimination.”

In case you didn’t have enough RFRA this week, here’s another example of how religious exemptions have an impact on people other than the exempted religious institutions.