World Vision, one of America's largest Christian charities, just made a small but important tweak to its employee handbook: it changed its definition of marriage. Like many religious non-profits, World Vision U.S. can privilege people with certain beliefs in their hiring practices. Until recently, one of those conditions of employment prohibited employees from engaging in sexual activity outside of a heterosexual marriage. Now, the charity's definition of marriage includes same-sex couples too. World Vision U.S.'s president Richard Stearns told Christianity Today that his charity hopes the change (which still prohibits sex outside of marriage) will become "symbolic not of compromise but of [Christian] unity." As of now, anyone "in a same-sex marriage who is a professed believer in Jesus Christ" is eligible for for employment there. World Vision U.S. is based in Washington State, where same-sex marriage is legal.
Although Stearns hopes that other Christian organizations will follow his example, World Vision has a history of choosing to sit out, rather than take sides, on controversial issues facing the different denominations who work with the charity. That context is important when looking at the World Vision leader's longer statement to CT: "It's easy to read a lot more into this decision than is really there...This is not an endorsement of same-sex marriage," Stearns cautioned, adding:
"We have decided we are not going to get into that debate. Nor is this a rejection of traditional marriage, which we affirm and support. We're not caving to some kind of pressure. We're not on some slippery slope. There is no lawsuit threatening us. There is no employee group lobbying us."
This statement will be tricky to swallow for some LGBT groups working for same-sex marriage equality state-by-state — it kind of reads like Pontius Pilate, washing his hands, in a certain light. Plus, as CT notes, World Vision has a history of working against government-based anti-discrimination regulations. The charity successfully fought in federal court for the right to hire only Christians, for instance, in a case that had the potential to be the Hobby Lobby case of hiring limitations for religious organizations. And it's opposed efforts in the international aid world to prohibit discrimination against LGBT individuals in the workplace.
All this is true. But it's still important, even outside of the world of Christian organizations currently contending with religious divisions on social issues. When Stearns denies caving to pressure, he's also complicating a common narrative among (often conservative Christian) anti-LGBT activists: that those in the "mainstream" who endorse equality rights are giving in to those who are trying to "force" a pro-LGBT agenda on the American public. It's a false narrative, but as even traditionally red states find their same sex marriage bans overturned in federal courts, it's picking up traction again by those who feel threatened when two people love each other without their approval. And Stearns's mild statement indicating that his organization would accept married employees in same-sex relationships has already ruffled feathers among those who want a harder line.
This is compromise hiding under a large layer of spin! http://t.co/Tx0ubKlnnq— Mark Totten (@Marktt57) March 24, 2014
Tragically the capitulation on marriage begins: http://t.co/wyzzatxVrk— davideprince (@davideprince) March 24, 2014
Stearns said that his policy is meant to move his organization to neutral ground on the debate, as his charity does not set theological policy for American Christians. But the new policy's simple acknowledgement that LGBT individuals can be Christ-believing wives and husbands will not be seen as neutral for some who support the charity's work. For better or for worse, it's a sure thing that other Christian organizations will be watching World Vision as it rolls out this change.