On Tuesday, we reported on “Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission,” the church and state case that many are calling one of the most important of its kind in recent years.
While this legal battle is far from over, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a separate but related instance, has offered up a major victory to the faith community.
The Court let stand a 9th Circuit ruling that affirmed World Vision, a Christian aid organization’s, right to fire employees who don’t share the humanitarian group’s religious beliefs. This, much like the Hosanna-Tabor case, involves the “ministerial exception,” which is a legal doctrine that provides protection to churches and religious institutions, alike, from government intervention in employment decisions.
In describing how faith plays into the organization’s hiring process, World Vision’s U.S. president, Richard Stearns, said in a statement on Monday that it is “…vital to the integrity of our mission to serve the poor as followers of Jesus Christ.”
In this particular case, the former employees who were suing the organization had initially signed a statement of faith (a document that reaffirms that they believe in Jesus Christ and the elements embraced by the organization). But when they could no longer claim that they adhered to these values, they were terminated.
The argument here, as in the Hosanna-Tabor case is that the organization, which involves itself in economic development and disaster relief activities, isn’t entirely a religious organization. Thus, in the eyes of the terminated employees and their legal team, the organization wouldn’t be exempt from Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (which forbids religious discrimination). By not hearing the case, though, the Supreme Court offered up a victory to World Vision.
First Things’ Joseph Knippenberg covers the significance of the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear the case. He writes, “For my money, this is an important tea leaf to read before the Court takes up the Hosanna-Tabor case.”
Typically, courts side with the religious institutions in employment cases. Thus, Knippenberg highlights analysis conducted by Christianity Today, which explains the issues surrounding this case:
The majority opinion refused to address certain thorny questions, such as whether or not World Vision’s humanitarian work is an inherently religious activity. Judge O’Scannlain’s opinion said that it would be “constitutionally troublesome” for the court to attempt to decide what sort of activity is religious and what is not. When the employees alleged that World Vision is not a religious group because it offers aid to people regardless of their own religion, O’Scannalin chose to accept World Vision’s own assertion that “providing humanitarian aid to all in need, regardless of religious belief, is a tenet of its faith.”
By declining to hear the case, the Court avoided delving into the faith business. Stearns had the following to say about the decision not to hear the case:
“I am pleased, relieved and gratified with the court’s action. 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.”
While this case certainly mirrors Hosanna-Tabor, there are some differences. The individuals who were let go in the World Vision case purportedly had conflicting religious view. In the Hosanna-Tabor case, though, the woman who was terminated was cut loose after an illness. The similarity between the two, though, is the aforementioned ministerial exception.
In the Hosanna case, it seems the court will need to determine if the woman’s role fit the parameters presented within the exception. This, it seems, was what the court was attempting to avoid by hearing World Vision in the first place.