Sep 15, 2011

Three World Vision employees sued their employer for terminating them in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act ("Title VII"), which bars religious discrimination in employment.  World Vision describes itself as a "Christian humanitarian organization" that works with children, families and communities worldwide by tackling the causes of poverty and injustice.  Upon being hired, and as a condition of employment, the plaintiffs agreed in writing to World Vision's Statement of Faith, Apostles' Creed, and Core Values and Mission Statement.  In 2006, World Vision discharged the plaintiffs because they had ceased attending daily devotions and weekly chapel services held during the workday and because they had denied the deity of Jesus Christ.  Arguing that it was a religious entity exempt from Title VII, World Vision moved for dismissal.  The federal district court converted the motion into one for summary judgment and allowed the plaintiffs a short time to conduct discovery.  The plaintiffs ultimately submitted some evidence of World Vision's receipt of government funding, but they did not show how the public funds were used or argue that the receipt of the funds rendered World Vision ineligible for religious exemption coverage.  The district court held that World Vision was a "religious organization" under the terms of the Title VII exemption, and the plaintiffs appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.  A three-judge panel, in a divided opinion, affirmed the district court's ruling, with the lead opinion stating that the plaintiffs did "not explain how receipt of government funds undermines World Vision's religiosity or bars its classification as a religious entity."  On September 7, 2010, the plaintiffs petitioned the Ninth Circuit for rehearing en banc. 

On September 17, 2010, Americans United, joined by three other civil-liberties organizations, submitted an amicus brief, out of concern that the language in the opinions could "suggest that an organization's receipt and use of federal funds is never relevant to the application of [the statutory exemption for religious entities] – a suggestion that threatens to effectively decide a complex constitutional issue."  The brief requests that the Ninth Circuit clarify its ruling regardless of whether it grants the plaintiffs' petition for rehearing en banc.  Specifically, the brief asks the court to "state that it is expressly reserving the question of whether [the statutory exemption for religious entities] may be constitutionally applied to exempt organizations from Title VII's prohibition on religious discrimination in employment with respect to positions that are financed with government funds."  On January 25, 2011, the Ninth Circuit denied the plaintiffs' request for rehearing en banc and issued an amended decision.  The court did not adopt to any of the amendments requested in our amicus brief, and also failed to address the impact of a religious organization's receipt and use of federal funds in determining whether it qualifies for Title VII statutory exemption.