Non-Profit Customer Service Position Not Religious Enough To Permit Discriminatory Hiring Practices

CATEGORY: Private Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Private Education
DATE: Feb 28, 2024

World Vision is a nonprofit organization that declares itself to be a “Christian ministry dedicated to sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ, primarily through humanitarian outreach to children and families around the world who are poor and underserved.”  It operates in many ways like a Christian church and implements its programs through and as supported by local churches.

Upon hire, every World Vision staff member receives an employee guidebook to help them comply with World Vision’s mission, vision, and core values.  The guidebook makes clear that prayer plays a central role in World Vision’s ministry.  In World Vision’s view, the Bible confines marriage to be between a man and a woman.  Accordingly, the World Vision Standards of Conduct prohibits sexual conduct outside of marriage between a man and a woman.

To be eligible for employment at World Vision, an individual must be able and willing to affirm and comply with, among other things, the World Vision Standards of Conduct.

In November or December 2020, Aubry McMahon saw a job posting for a position of customer service representative with World Vision.  The posting stated that the customer service representative would help carry out the Christian organization’s mission, vision and strategies, and personify the ministry of World Vision, and required attendance at weekly Chapel services and regular prayer.  World Vision said their customer service representatives play a crucial role in fundraising, which World Vision views as “a form of ministry in itself.”  World Vision customer service representatives fielded more than 15,000 prayer requests during the calendar year 2020.

McMahon applied and interviewed for the position, and the Organization extended a contingent offer to her.  The offer letter stated that McMahon’s employment was dependent upon completing a nine-to-eleven week training and evaluation program.  The same day World Vision sent McMahon written confirmation of her job offer, McMahon asked the Organization about whether she would qualify for any time off as a new employee, as her and her wife were expecting their first baby.  World Vision rescinded the offer due to McMahon’s inability to comply with the Standards of Conduct.

McMahon filed suit under Title VII, claiming that World Vision unlawfully discriminated against her based on sex, sexual orientation, and marital status.

World Vision argued that McMahon’s claims should be dismissed for a number of reasons, including because they were barred by: (1) Title VII’s religious organization exemption; (2) the ministerial exception; and (3) the bona fide occupational qualification defense.

Under Title VII, religious organizations have a constitutionally-protected interest in making religiously-motivated employment decisions and are exempt from Title VII’s prohibition against discrimination in employment decisions on the basis of religion.  World Vision argued that as a religious organization, they were exempt from the entire subchapter of Title VII, regardless of the type of discrimination at issue.  The Court disagreed.  While Title VII allows for hiring decisions based upon religious preferences, religious employers are still subject to Title VII for claims based on sex and other protected grounds.  Here, World Vision rescinded McMahon’s job offer based on a facially discriminatory policy, and McMahon was treated differently based on her sex, sexual orientation, and marital status.

Next, World Vision argued that it was allowed to rescind McMahon’s job offer because she was a minister and therefore subject to the ministerial exception.  Rooted in the First Amendment, the ministerial exception ensures that courts stay out of employment disputes involving individuals holding certain important positions with churches and other religious institutions.  The exception bars employment discrimination claims brought on behalf of ministers.

The Court determined that McMahon’s role was not that of a minister for a number of reasons.  First, the job posting and offer letter were both secular.  Second, McMahon’s title lacked ministerial or religious substance.  The nine-to-eleven week training and evaluation program would have had some religious components, but not enough to rise to the level of a minister.  Furthermore, the Court reasoned that the position did not require any formal religious education or training, and instead required only a high school diploma or GED equivalent.  Third, McMahon did not hold herself out to be a minister.

Fourth, McMahon would not have served important religious functions.  World Vision argued that customer service representatives served important religious functions, such as confessing they are committed Christians, agreeing with World Vision’s core principals, communicating World Vision’s Christian faith, and participating in prayer activities and weekly chapel services.  The Court found that all World Vision employees were expected to uphold these responsibilities, meaning that they did not hold a certain important ministerial position within the Organization.  Furthermore, although there may have been times where a customer service representative prayed with customers, this was not a job requirement and failure to do so did not subject the representative to discipline or termination.  In fact, World Vision did not ask McMahon any questions about donor prayers when interviewing McMahon.  Since McMahon never actually worked for the Organization, the Court found it impossible to know how often the issue would have come up.  The Court determined that, as a whole, the customer service representative position was a secular one and therefore the ministerial exception did not apply.

World Vision also argued that they were permitted to rescind the job offer under the bona fide occupational qualification defense, which permits an employer to discriminate on the basis of religion, sex, or national origin in instances where religion, sex, or national origin is a bona fide occupational qualification reasonably necessary to the normal operation of that particular business or enterprise.  To prove this defense, World Vision must show that not being in a same-sex marriage is reasonably necessary to the normal operation of its business and that the requirement concerned job-related skills and aptitudes.  Here, the Court was not convinced that was the case.  The Court found no evidence that being in a same-sex marriage affected one’s ability to place and field donor calls, converse with donors, pray with donors, update donor information, upsell World Vision programs, or participate in devotions and chapel.  World Vision failed to show that excluding those in a same sex marriage was essential to the customer service representative position.

The Court granted McMahon’s motion for summary judgment and sent the case to trial to determine the relief McMahon should be granted.

McMahon v. World Vision, Inc. (W.D.Wash. Nov. 28, 2023) 2023 U.S.Dist.LEXIS 211417.

Note: This case provides a relevant overview of the types of issues a court will tease out when religious employers, including schools, make employment decisions based on an individual’s protected classifications.  This case was decided in Washington, and if appealed, may be decided by the Ninth Circuit and binding on California.

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