The First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the government from either the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise of religion. The meaning and application of the First Amendment has been hotly debated. One such are of ongoing debate is in the realm of employment law. Religious institutions are after all employers. So how does employment law intersect with the First Amendment?
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 generally prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of religion unless the employer meets the definition of a “religious corporation, association, or society.” This is an easy bar for a church to meet but what about religious ministries? This question arose in a case that addressed the question: can a religious organization require employees to sign a statement of faith?
In a 2010 case called Spencer v. World Vision, Inc., a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (that includes Arizona in its jurisdiction) took up this question. At issue was an organization founded on Christian principles, though not affiliated with any particular denomination, called World Vision, whose self-description was as a “Christian humanitarian organization dedicated to working with children, families and their communities […] by tackling the causes of poverty and injustice.” World Vision required its employees to sign—and stick to—a statement of doctrinal belief. When it learned that two of its employees had disavowed the doctrinal element of the Trinity, it fired them. The Court considered primarily the question of whether World Vision was a “religious corporation, association […] or society” that was entitled to an exemption to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act’s prohibition of discrimination on the basis of religion.
The court essentially ruled that an organization would be classified as a religious organization if, upon inspect, it was truly religious. The court looked at things like the organizing documents And whether they evinced a religious purpose, the statements on the organization’s website, and even the art that hangs on the organization’s walls. Put simply the court was looking to see whether the organization was religious from top to bottom and inside and out.
If an Arizona organization meets this rule, then it may, indeed, require its employees to sign—and stick to—a statement of faith. It can prefer members of its own religion in making employment decisions without fearing that it will run afoul of federal employment law’s prohibition on religious discrimination.
If you need help determining whether your organization meets this rule, or any other help with your religious organization, Provident Law’s church and nonprofit attorneys are here to help. We recognize how essential these organizations are to society, and how important it is that they maintain standards for their ongoing existence. We stand ready to counsel and serve by providing broad transactional and general counsel services. Contact us to learn more.