Several weeks ago, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of World Vision in a potentially important First Amendment case. At issue was the question of whether religious organizations that accept government funds may discriminate on the basis of religion. According to the Heritage Foundation:
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.
For Americans United for Separation of Church and State, however, the question isn’t whether World Vision qualifies for the accommodation–it’s whether the accommodation should be made at all. AU and allies the Interfaith Alliance, the Anti-Defamation League, and the American Humanist Association are appealing, and explained why in a press release today:
In a friend-of-the-court brief, AU and allied organizations have asked the judges who decided Spencer v. World Vision, Inc. – or the entire 9th U.S. Circuit – to rehear the case to make it clear that allowing publicly funded groups like World Vision to discriminate in employment on religious grounds raises serious church-state issues.
“Religious groups have the right to impose theological requirements on staff in privately funded positions, but when tax money enters the picture, that must change,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “No one should be denied a taxpayer-funded job for being the ‘wrong’ religion. That makes a mockery of our nation’s commitment to eradicating discrimination.”
The crucial matter here is that AU and its allies believe that eradicating “discrimination”–which is to say, prohibiting the consideration of any and all distinctions that can be made between people in hiring, for instance whether they support the mission and rationale behind a given organization–is more important than religious freedom.
There’s a reason why the accommodation is in the law. Religious organizations are inherently founded in a shared vision, shared mission, and shared beliefs. Agreeing with those shared perspectives are at least as important as being able to do a particular job. For instance, imagine an evangelical church hiring a secretary who it later discovers is an atheist. She’s able to do everything she’s asked to do, but after a short time in the office starts making clear to every person she encounters in the neighborhood (but outside of the office) that she considers what the church stands for to be utter nonsense that no thinking person could possibly accept. Now, say that same church is receiving federal funds to run a ministry to the poor in its community, and that the secretary has duties that intersect with that ministry. By AU’s light, it would be illegal for the church to fire the secretary because of her views. At least that’s the way it sounds to me.
One can make a good case that no religious organization should receive federal funds, and you can make the case from the standpoint of those organizations that they would be better off if they did their work without federal help. It is the situation, however, that the government has expressed a desire to work with religious organizations to achieve certain mutually agreed upon goals. Having done so doesn’t give the government the right or obligation to dictate to otherwise private institutions how they should conduct their operations, including hiring on the basis of agreement with the organization’s perspectives and beliefs. Contending that it does means that every entity that ever receives money from the government ceases to be a private organization and becomes part of the state, a result that no one except those on the far left wants to see happen. The interesting thing is that the government knows that; hence the accommodation in the law. So why don’t AU and their allies?