“We’re Christian—as in, we follow Jesus’ example to show unconditional love to the poor and oppressed. Serving every child we can—of any faith or none.” That’s how World Vision, a global humanitarian aid organization, introduces itself. The nonprofit’s focus is feeding the hungry and clothing the poor, having helped more than 30 million disaster survivors and 3.2 million children through its child sponsorship program.
But while many celebrate World Vision’s work, some are attacking its identity. As Steve West reported in August, the Christian charity faces a legal challenge to its employee conduct policy. An applicant in a same-sex marriage sued the organization under Washington’s “Law Against Discrimination” after World Vision rescinded a job offer based on her violation of its sexual conduct policy.
The lawsuit is off to a discouraging start. A federal judge recently ruled that World Vision is indeed at odds with Washington law and not protected by the “church autonomy doctrine”—a legal principle derived from the First Amendment and intended to protect religious organizations from judicial meddling in the application of their theology.
Do religious organizations have autonomy to hire or retain employees based on their beliefs? The Constitution clearly answers, “Yes.” But the debate goes well beyond World Vision’s saga; for example, my employer, Alliance Defending Freedom, has been litigating the issue for years.
Last November, the Wyoming Rescue Mission achieved victory after it declined to hire a non-Christian for a thrift store associate position—a role that is expected to teach the mission’s Discipleship Recovery Program guests how to spread the gospel and disciple one another. In Michigan, the legal battle continues for Christian Healthcare Centers and Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish, which seek to apply Christian theology to the hiring and retention of medical staff and teachers. The state, however, insists on enforcing a “diversity” regime that prioritizes gender ideology over the freedom of religious organizations to be authentically religious.
A similar lawsuit is playing out in Washington state, where the Yakima Union Gospel Mission is challenging the enforcement of the same law weaponized against World Vision. The mission initiated its lawsuit in the wake of the Washington Supreme Court’s egregious 2021 ruling against a similar ministry, the Seattle Union Gospel Mission, and the subsequent decision of state officials to begin enforcing the law against religious organizations, which it did just last year by investigating a Christian university for hiring only Christians.
The state’s enforcement of the Washington law against religious employers presents them with an impossible choice: Either hire those who disagree with and seek to change your Biblical beliefs, or stop following your religious calling. Following the Washington Supreme Court’s ruling, the Seattle mission asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear its case. Unfortunately, the high court declined.
In a statement explaining that decision, Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas noted that the issues were still of vital importance:
To force religious organizations to hire messengers and other personnel who do not share their religious views would undermine not only the autonomy of many religious organizations but also their continued viability. If States could compel religious organizations to hire employees who fundamentally disagree with them, many religious non-profits would be extinguished from participation in public life—perhaps by those who disagree with their theological views most vigorously.
So, why does the “church autonomy doctrine” matter? Because Christian organizations will cease to be truly Christian if they are forced to hire nonbelievers.
To be clear, Christians will continue to be the hands and feet of Christ whether or not state officials “permit” us to organize as nonprofits. But the genius and gift of our First Amendment can’t simply be shrugged off. And religious liberty is an inheritance that matters to all Americans—whether you’re an ordained minister or not.
Religious organizations have been a force for enormous good throughout our country’s history, in large part because of their religious identity. We may have declined from the religiously saturated society that French politician Alexis de Tocqueville noted in Democracy in America. But religious organizations continue to be highly relevant. In fact, a 2016 study estimates that religion (including religious organizations and religion’s impact on American businesses) contributes nearly $1.2 trillion of socio-economic value to the U.S. economy.
In the face of epidemics (loneliness, homelessness, or opioid) and a dozen other national social challenges, we can’t afford to leave our Christian ministries and partnerships handcuffed by unjust laws.
World Vision’s story isn’t over or unique. The fight for religious autonomy is part of a larger Christian effort to live out the gospel faithfully—for the spiritual and physical good of our neighbors. We hope good legal arguments in these cases convince American judges. But it matters far more that we one day hear our ultimate Judge commend us for feeding the hungry and helping the impoverished in His name.