Can hiring be refused because a person is not a Christian?
October 1, 2010 1:42 PM   Subscribe

Asking for a friend: Can hiring at a non-profit be refused because a person is not a Christian?

A friend was interviewed for a job at a very well-known non-profit that is affiliated with Christianity and did well in the interview. Proselytizing is not the core function of the organization, and in fact I was surprised to learn that the organization was affiliated with a religion. After a week of not hearing, she inquired about the status of her application. It was between her and another person, and she did not get the job. She asked why she wasn't hired, hoping to get tips for her continued job search. The interviewer said a number of things that she did well in the interview, and had already incorporated a number of her ideas on the job. The applicant continued to press the subject, and the interviewer finally said she was worried about the applicant's "spiritual background" and that she wouldn't be able to communicate the core faith values of the organization. At one point the interviewer defined what it means to be Christian and how the applicant did not fit into that. While it's now clear that if this is the way the job would work, the applicant would not be happy in the job, the central question remains.

Can hiring be refused on the basis of religious affiliation (or lack thereof)?

I realize there are exemptions for religious institutions, but this position and the bulk of the operation has nothing to do with religion. This is in Washington state, USA. What government departments or organizations or workers' rights organizations should my friend talk to?
posted by msbrauer to Law & Government (25 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act allows churches and religious organizations to discriminate on the basis of religion. Title VII states that it does not apply to ". . . a religious corporation, association, educational institution, or society with respect to the employment of individuals of a particular religion to perform work connected with the carrying on by such corporation, association, educational institution, or society of its activities."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:45 PM on October 1, 2010 [4 favorites]

Oh, and they have to have more than 15 employees for this to apply to them at all.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:46 PM on October 1, 2010

posted by rmhsinc at 1:47 PM on October 1, 2010

Title VII states that it does not apply to

I guess I should say that Title VII says the prohibition against discrimination does not apply to ... meaning, yes, they can discriminate in this instance.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:50 PM on October 1, 2010

As of March, this issue has been "under study" by the Justice Department, but apparently it is still allowed.
posted by desjardins at 1:52 PM on October 1, 2010

So here I read:

Is every single activity of a religious organization covered under this broad exemption in ENDA?

Not necessarily. Because ENDA's religious exemption is so much broader than Title VII's exemption, one qualification has been added in ENDA. If a religious organization engages in activities that are substantially unrelated to its religious purposes, such that the Internal Revenue Service would consider the profit from such activities to be taxable, employees who are engaged solely in those activities producing taxable income would be covered under ENDA.

The position would have been the manager of a store that sells donated appliances and building material.
posted by msbrauer at 1:54 PM on October 1, 2010

Are the proceeds from the activities taxable? I'm guessing they are putting the proceeds to work in a ministry (it might be training the disabled or printing books or...)

You said yourself, this is a non-profit organization.
posted by SMPA at 2:11 PM on October 1, 2010

The link to ENDA is a description of a statute that was never passed into law.
posted by willbaude at 2:18 PM on October 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

Nothing's happened with ENDA since last November.
posted by desjardins at 2:29 PM on October 1, 2010

I'm tempted to say that your friend should report what that person said to someone higher up in the organization, but it would just get that person in trouble. Like you said, your friend would not have wanted to work there once she understood where they were coming from. I hope this wasn't a Habitat ReStore.
posted by mareli at 2:42 PM on October 1, 2010

I realize there are exemptions for religious institutions, but this position and the bulk of the operation has nothing to do with religion

Well if you are speaking of Habitat for Humanity's ReStore, that's not exactly accurate. They describe themselves as a ecumenical christian housing ministry. While that is linked to a claim that they welcome anyone they do tend to use phrases describing the charity beneficiaries and volunteers, not the organization itself.

Habitat also has affiliates; you may be dealing with a local chapter (I am unclear if their ReStores are run by the national organization or local chapters) which has slightly different policies.

National or local, Habitat is a 501c3 and some cursory googling seems to indicate that the code as it stands doesn't prevent a religious organization from discriminating. Here's a link to a law school paper abstract proposing adding restrictions on discrimination to the tax code, implying there's nothing in there preventing a non-profit from also being a religious organization with a right to discriminate.

This ECFA website states that Title VII lets an organization discriminate but that "should" post information about their possible discrimination re: religion. It seems to stop short of saying that they MUST do so.
posted by phearlez at 2:47 PM on October 1, 2010

If it is Habitat, then the interviewer's explanation goes against the spirit, if not the letter, of the message on the front page of their HR site:
HFHI is an equal opportunity employer and seeks to employ and assign the best qualified personnel for all of our positions in a manner that does not unlawfully discriminate against any person because of race, color, religion, gender, marital status, age, national origin, physical or mental disability, sexual orientation, veteran/reserve and National Guard status or any other status or characteristic protected by law.
That's a kind of sneaky "unlawfully" in there.
posted by hades at 2:52 PM on October 1, 2010

World Vision, among others, does this all the time. Even for programs that get significant taxpayer funding and are not explicitly connected to religion.

(Editorializing and generalizing: Get used to it. I am offended and angry that my taxes are used to support these types of organizations and activities, and that they get to do this, but suspect that it will only become more prevalent and egregious in coming years if political entities with strongly religious inclinations become more popular.)
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 3:00 PM on October 1, 2010

FWIW--I understand the indignation you and your friend might be experiencing--pragmatically this is probably not one that you will win and I doubt it will help in his/her career development. I would probable not say "get used to it" but I would say move on and focus on what you can directly do. Filing complaints with appropriate State Enforcement Departments are time consuming as is litigation on a case that would probably not proceed.
posted by rmhsinc at 3:17 PM on October 1, 2010

Yes, this happens all the time. A number of long-established "charities" have a Christian message and world view as part of their core values. Usually, this internal belief system is not associated in the public perception of the organization.
posted by hworth at 4:09 PM on October 1, 2010

Your friend needs to speak to an employment attorney in private practice or a staff member of the Washington State human rights commission. Here's a link to the Washington HRC:

Some of the advice above may be accurate, but it is incomplete. Many states have anti-discrimination laws, and many of those laws are more "pro-plaintiff" than Title VII. I know nothing about Washington discrimination law. I teach and practice in California. Only a local attorney can really advise you accurately.

I'd also hesitate to give the advice, as has been offered above, that "a very well-known non-profit that is affiliated with Christianity" necessarily falls under the religious organization exemption. We'd have to know a lot more before drawing that conclusion.

Finally, ignore everything above about ENDA, which isn't the law.

Best of luck to your friend!
posted by ferdydurke at 4:48 PM on October 1, 2010

This is purely anecdotal, but I've frequently heard that it is very hard to prove discrimination in the hiring process. I mean age discrimination is illegal, but talk to anyone unemployed or job searching over the age of 50. On some level choosing between equally qualified candidates is subjective. The organization can always come up with some subjective, and legal reason for why they hired job candidate A over job candidate B. My understanding is that it's a little easier to prove discrimination once you are already in the work place and can show a trend of lack of promotions or unequal pay. I'm not justifying discrimination for any reason, just stating my understanding that it can be very difficult to prove. That being said, the person with whom your friend spoke, made a major error in admitting that her "spiritual background" was a factor in their decision, so that may give your friend a little leeway. However, I think that the financial cost of retaining a lawyer to pursue this would outweigh whatever she might hope to gain from pursuing this.
posted by kaybdc at 5:16 PM on October 1, 2010

I'd imagine that the person your friend spoke to wouldn't have dreamed of mentioning the Christianity aspect unless they were absolutely certain they were exempt from prosecution.

Therefore I'd doubt there is anywhere further to take this
posted by handybitesize at 5:31 PM on October 1, 2010

I thought it was illegal in the US to ask at a job interview what religion a person is.
posted by IndigoRain at 8:17 PM on October 1, 2010

Contact your local chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Most chapters have eager volunteers who may have encountered this before in your state; regardless, they can put you in touch with the legal team at National.

There may not be much they can do for your friend directly. But having this incident on the books with AU will help them keep track of the organizations that are doing this.
posted by gurple at 11:11 PM on October 1, 2010

I thought it was illegal in the US to ask at a job interview what religion a person is.

As far as I know, it's not illegal to ask questions about religion, children, sexuality, etc., it's just not wise. If you don't hire the candidate, they may later sue you for discrimination based on their answers to your questions. Better to steer clear of such topics entirely.
posted by neushoorn at 4:38 AM on October 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just wanted to agree with gurple's suggestion. From your question it sounds less like your friend wants to take direct action against this employer for her non-offer - as others have said, a lawsuit would be timeconsuming, expensive and unlikely to be a positive experience whatever the outcome.

It sounds more like you'd like to first see if this entity and others aren't being discriminatory in violation of the law generally, and then perhaps see what can be done. An organization focused on this issue seems to be the best source for getting more information. Once some homework is done on the status of the entity, the organization should have some guidance as to next steps. In any case, perhaps a letter to the CEO about the discriminatory hiring process would be appropriate (even if they can do it legally, it may not be a good business practice for them and one they should re-think).
posted by Sukey Says at 7:35 AM on October 2, 2010

Yeah, it was the Restore with Habitat. The friend doesn't want a lawsuit or anything, but it would be worthwhile to let organizations working on this issue know about the situation. A new job announcement has gone out, this time stating "preference for someone who can foster the organization's faith-based values" or something. It's left a sour taste in the friend's mouth, not to mention the frustration in trying to find secular non-profits with whom to volunteer and work. And the friend has told a bunch of people around town about her experience, and everyone is shocked that religious discrimination in the hiring process is lawful. I mean, sure, a church shouldn't be forced to hire a pastor of another denomination, so the religious exemption is useful in some cases, but for what sure seems to be a non-religious organization during home builds and through the store. The interviewer said my friend would be more than welcome to volunteer with the organization ("just not in leadership positions"), but there's no chance of that happening after this.

A secondary concern has come up that homes built by Habitat only go to Christian families. I know they give Bibles to the families at the house dedication and there's a substantial screening process to see who gets the houses.

Whatever the case, the whole situation has really opened our eyes to what Habitat is really about.
posted by msbrauer at 4:57 PM on October 2, 2010

Myth: You have to be Christian to become a Habitat homeowner.
Fact: Habitat homeowners are chosen without regard to race, religion or ethnic group, in keeping with U.S. law and with Habitat's abiding belief that God's love extends to everyone. Habitat also welcomes volunteers from all faiths, or no faith, who actively embrace Habitat's goal of eliminating poverty housing from the world.

Myth: Habitat for Humanity International dictates policy and practices for every local Habitat organization.
Fact: Local Habitat affiliates are independent, nonprofit organizations that operate within a specific service area within the framework of the Habitat Affiliate Covenant.

I don't think they can, by law, limit who gets the houses, as that suggests. As to hiring, that's a separate issue, and the HR page linked above is for Habitat International -- the parent organization -- and not an individual affiliate. I would expect Habitat affiliates to be as varied as Christian practice around the country is, and quite possibly that individual affiliates could be more exclusionary than others.

I can understand the disappointment, but I doubt there's any legal case here, or that anything is gained by furthering this. If your friend does want to put any more energy into this, for whatever reason, I suggest that getting the local board to change its policy would be the appropriate place to start. Get the names, write letters, see if any of them will meet with you personally. They probably represent a variety of roles in the area, from a cross-section of church leaders to businessmen and politicians.
posted by dhartung at 6:28 PM on October 2, 2010

Whatever the case, the whole situation has really opened our eyes to what Habitat is really about.

Please don't tar all of Habitat with that brush. As I said, they are both a national organization and one which has local affiliates. At the national level their job postings all state that not only do they not discriminate on the basis of sex or religion but also sexual preference, a standard that they do not have to meet in most regions and certainly not in Georgia where their HQ is.
posted by phearlez at 11:39 AM on October 3, 2010

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