U.S. Ninth Circuit Issues Ruling in Spencer v. World Vision

August 2010 – U.S. Ninth Circuit
Joseph Hepworth

Ninth Circuit rules that quasi-religious organization has the right to hire only people who agree with its religious beliefs.

In Spencer v. World Vision [announced August 23, 2010], a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that World Vision, Inc., an organization founded on Christian principles but unaffiliated with any specific Christian church, could terminate employees who no longer adhered to Christian doctrines embraced by World Vision. World Vision describes itself as a “Christian humanitarian organization dedicated to working with children, families and their communities … by tackling the causes of poverty and injustice.” World Vision requires its employees to adhere to a statement of doctrinal belief. Upon learning that two employees disavowed the doctrine of the trinity, World Vision terminated them. In an appeal granting World Vision summary judgment, the court considered only one question: Is World Vision a “religious corporation, association, … or society” entitled to an exception from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act’s prohibition of religious discrimination in employment? The court announced three separate tests in three opinions. Judge O’Scannlain wrote that “a nonprofit entity” qualifies as a religious organization if it “(1) is organized for a self-identified religious purpose … (2) is engaged in activity consistent with, and in furtherance of, those religious purposes, and (3) holds iteself out to the public as religious.” In a concurring opinion, Judge Kleinfeld argued that being a non-profit entity was insufficient and added a forth element to the test: “and does not engage primarily or substantially in the exchange of goods or services for money beyond nominal amounts.” Judge Berzon, dissenting, would only apply the exemption to an organized church or an entity affiliated with an organized church.