Installing Recessed Lighting the Trinitarian Way

Uh-oh. He's not a Trinitarian.

Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits religious discrimination in employment but exempts religious organizations in cases where the employment is connected with the organization’s religious activities. For example, a Baptist church may reject non-Christian—or even non-Baptist—applicants for a position such as Director of Religious Education. (See the exact wording of the exemption clause at the end of this post.) The church might even require adherence to very narrow doctrines about faith and practice in filling such positions.

But what compelling interest does the church have in requiring its Facilities Manager or its IT staff to profess a particular brand of Christianity? Is there a “pre-dispensationalist way” of hooking up a gas stove or installing recessed lighting? Does rejecting the Trinity or the Resurrection make one incompetent to troubleshoot a frozen computer?

This was the question asked by the plaintiffs in a 2007 lawsuit brought against World Vision, a Christian aid organization, by three of its employees—Sylvia Spencer, Vicki Hulse, and Ted Youngberg. They were fired when World Vision discovered that, though Christians, they did not believe in the Trinity. Spencer worked in technology and facilities, Hulse performed various office duties, and Youngberg coordinated shipping and facilities needs.

World Vision receives more than half its funding from government grants and gifts-in-kind. The organization provided no proof for its claim that 84% of cash contributions were from churches. Though tax-exempt, it is not owned, managed, or controlled by any particular church.

Nevertheless, on August 23 of this year, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the plaintiffs in a 2-1 decision, concluding that World Vision qualifies for the Civil Rights Act exemption because “the general picture” of the organization is “primarily religious.”

In her dissenting opinion, Judge Marsha Berzon wrote that the intent of Title VII was to protect the religious freedom of employees by insulating their religious beliefs from their economic well-being and that the exemption was designed only for organizations devoted to prayer and religious instruction.

Judith Lonnquist, attorney for the plaintiffs, believes a motion for reconsideration may be a possibility.

Here is the exacting wording of the exemption clause:

SEC. 702. This title shall not apply to an employer with respect to the employment of aliens outside any State, or to a religious corporation, association, or society with respect to the employment of individuals of a particular religion to perform work connected with the carrying on by such corporation, association, or society of its religious activities or to an educational institution with respect to the employment of individuals to perform work connected with the educational activities of such institution.


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