Earlier this week the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued an important religious liberty decision that protects the right of faith-based social service organizations to protect their religious identity and mission.
The case involves World Vision, a nonprofit Christian humanitarian organization focused on the causes of poverty and injustice. World Vision was sued for religious discrimination by two employees it fired after learning that they did not agree with World Vision’s doctrinal beliefs.
As a general rule, federal nondiscrimination law demands that private employers ignore religion in making employment decisions. But the same law includes an accommodation for “a religious corporation, association, educational institution, or society.” The question in Spencer v. World Vision was whether World Vision fit this definition and therefore qualified for the accommodation.
Two of three judges agreed that World Vision, even though it is not a traditional house of worship, is entitled to the institutional religious liberty accommodation. Circuit Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain wrote the opinion for the court.
This ruling comes at a time in the life of this nation when faith-based organizations face increasing burdens. Illustrations include D.C. lawmakers’ refusal earlier this year to protect the right of D.C. Catholic Charities to uphold its religious identity and character while providing social services in the District. Because it refused to compromise its religious belief that marriage is the union of a husband and a wife, Catholic Charities was forced to stop offering adoption services and providing spousal benefits to its employees.
Similarly, earlier this year the Supreme Court ruled that state universities can deny equal recognition to a Christian student group that refuses to accept members and leaders who disagree with the religious beliefs of the group. Under this ruling a Christian student group could be denied recognition “if it does not allow an atheist student to lead its Bible studies.”
Other examples can be found in this Heritage backgrounder and this book promoted by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. Not surprisingly, many of the threats to religious liberty and right of association discussed in these and other sources stem from nondiscrimination dictates that seek to control the conduct of private citizens and private organizations.
Protecting the religious freedom of faith-based organizations and other civil society groups is an important part of building an American where freedom, opportunity, prosperity, and civil society flourish. They meet important needs and shape people’s identity, and the existence of such organizations also serves as a check on government overreach. As Heritage’s William E. Simon Fellow Ryan Messmore has argued, the role, power, and influence of government grows when the role, power, and influence exercised by religious communities shrinks. The ability of groups like World Vision to make employment decisions based on their deepest convictions is important for sustaining freedom and a robust civil society.
The Ninth Circuit’s decision in the World Vision case will likely be proposed for further appellate review. For now, however, it stands as an important victory for institutional religious liberty.