Discrimination vs. religious freedom?

The banner headline on Page 1 of the Chicago Tribune blared the disturbing news: “Charity ripped for ‘hire’ calling.”

Monday’s deck head elaborated: “It requires new employees to be Christians — a policy that is driving away workers and reawakening federal funding issues.”

So immediately, it’s clear: Something truly awful is happening, and the Tribune has the scoop on it:

A prominent refugee resettlement organization has enacted a policy that requires new employees to be Christian, triggering an exodus of Chicago staff members who denounce it as religious discrimination.

The former director of the Chicago office of World Relief, a global evangelical Christian charity that receives federal funds to resettle refugees, said she was forced out in January because she disagreed with how the policy was implemented. The agency also has dismantled mental health services for refugees in Chicago after losing staff and funding because of the hiring rule, officials said.

“As a Christian, I feel it is my duty to advocate for the most vulnerable,” said former legal specialist Trisha Teofilo, who also left because of the policy. “I believe Jesus would not promote a policy of discrimination.”


That’s the key word in this story.

Early in the story, the Tribune makes it clear — as one-sided stories tend to do — that this is a story about discrimination, not a story about religious freedom:

Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the hiring policy is legal. But opponents, including current and former employees, say it is hypocritical for an agency to discriminate when its mission is settling refugees — many of whom have fled religious intolerance in their home countries.

“It’s legal, but it’s ridiculously wrong and un-Christian,” said Delia Seeburg, the director of immigrant legal services in World Relief’s Chicago office. She plans to leave for a new job next month.

Only near the end of this 1,300-word piece does the Tribune offer any inkling that perhaps there might be another side to the story — that there might be employees who went to work for World Relief because of its Christian environment:

The Rev. Brad Morris, the interim director brought in from Nashville, Tenn., after Embling’s departure, said the hiring policy has nothing to do with the services provided and that he doesn’t see a conflict.

“I don’t believe it’s discrimination. It’s an internal hiring policy,” he said. “Corporations want to hire people who are in line with who they are and what they stand for. One of the reasons I came to work with World Relief was it was a Christian organization to begin with.”

The piece, which has an investigative tone to it without much to back it up, also insinuates that World Relief may be trying to proselytize its clients:

Greg Wangerin, executive director of Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Ministries, said the policy was troubling to many in the refugee resettlement community. World Relief handles 40 percent of U.S. arrivals.

“To impose one particular value of a given faith upon others who may be of other faith traditions and are important players in welcoming the stranger is going a bit too far,” Wangerin said.

Bauman said the agency has a strict rule against proselytizing, adding that the new policy may call for additional training on that point.

But Zeitoun worries about what might go on behind closed doors.

Now, that’s all pretty scary stuff: A Christian organization that receives federal funds may be indoctrinating refugees with different religious beliefs behind closed doors. But I’ve got a suggestion: How about providing a shred of evidence to back up such an accusation? If World Relief handles 40 percent of 40 U.S. arrivals, why not interview a handful of those refugees and ask: Did anyone preach the Christian gospel to you?

Don’t get me wrong: Employees are leaving. There’s obviously upheaval in World Relief’s Chicago office. This is news. My problem is not that the Tribune chose to do the story or play it on Page 1. My concern is that the paper takes one side and advocates for it.

Just imagine if the Tribune had decided to make this a story about religious freedom, not a story about discrimination.

In that case, how might this piece have read differently?

Well, for one thing, rather than the charged language of the Tribune story, it might have included more neutral phrasing such as this:

Recognizing the need of faith-based organizations to maintain an atmosphere of shared values and principles, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 permits them to hire based on religion. Such groups, largely philanthropic, range from soup kitchens and drug-counseling services to refugee-resettlement agencies.

Among these are organizations like World Relief, which provides aid to some of the world’s most vulnerable, and operates in the U.S., helping resettle refugees from all cultural and religious backgrounds.

Grounded in evangelical faith, the Baltimore-based organization receives up to 70 percent of its funding from government sources, with the rest from private donors, including churches seeking assurances that the religious values of those carrying out the agency’s work are similar to their own.

Staff members at the agency also say the work they do can be stressful and so they pray during meetings to help ease that stress — a practice they believe might make non-Christians uncomfortable.

Where’d I read that?

I saw it about three weeks ago in the Seattle Times — also on Page 1, if I recall — in a story that focused on a Muslim interpreter rejected for a job at World Relief. Same story. Much different tone and treatment. Dare I say, a much better attempt at journalism that treats all sides with fairness and respect.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Stoo

    Maybe papers should take a balance and frame it as discussion of the “religious freedom to discriminate”? :p

  • Dave

    Why should the word “discrimination” be radioactive in this context? If a seculary organization were to restrict its new hire to Christians, there would be no question about the use of the word. The Civil Right Act permits some instances of legal discrimination. The shoe fits.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    In church-state terms, what we have here is another clash between freedom of association (secular or religious groups defining mission and hiring according to beliefs, goals and doctrines)and the receipt of tax dollars (as opposed to mere tax-exempt status).

    This has always been a tense area. This is one reason why some CONSERVATIVE Christians opposed the W Bush faith-based initiative, fearing that it would lead to the attachment of doctrinal strings of this kind.

  • Peter

    The news here isn’t about religious freedom because it isn’t in jeopardy. The news is that the organization’s legally permissable discrimination is causing chaos and allegedly harming services. The reporter could have explained the religious liberty loophole in contracting and civil rights law, but the emphasis of the story was right on.

  • Jon in the Nati

    discrimination vs. religious freedom?

    To be absolutely fair, I don’t think that this story has a whole lot to do with either of those things. For me, at least, it is primarily a matter of freedom of association and how that effects federal funding (just as TMATT mentioned above) and I would like to see it framed and explored more in that vein.

    Of course, it seems that the Tribune decided to go with different, more potentially inflammatory language. Rather than discuss what the law is and what it allows, the paper chose to frame the matter as “discrimination” (a charged word whether one agrees or not) and throw in some innuendo about “what is going on behind closed doors.” Silly.

  • http://www.muchmorethanwords.com gfe

    I agree that the Seattle Times story is more balanced, but I find that both the articles fall short in not explaining to what extent the organization has to separate funds (or whatever) to prevent federal funds from being used for secular purposes as opposed to religious purposes. There wouldn’t be an issue if government funds weren’t involved, and as a taxpayer I’d like to know to what extent my money is being used to promote a soteriology that isn’t my own. Is the government merely contracting with a religious organization to provide a secular service (which might be OK if it’s the organization that can best do the work), or is there more involved? Is the service provided different than if a secular (or non-Christian religious) organization were performing it?

    As an aside: Being a headline writer myself, I appreciate the efforts of the Tribune copy editor to attempt a play on words with the front-page headline. But in this case, the work play makes the headline unintelligible. With that particular story, it might have been better to simply do something like “Charity ripped for bias in hiring.” At least then the reader would know what the story’s about.

  • http://www.post-gazette.com Ann Rodgers

    If my recollection of history is accurate, World Relief was founded as the relief arm of the National Association of Evangelicals. I don’t know if they’re still institutionally connected, but that tells you something about who they are. It’s odd that there was apparently no mention of it.

  • dalea

    Interesting quote from the Trib:

    Because a selective hiring policy could conflict with professional guidelines for social workers and clinical psychologists, the mental health unit was forced to close and refer its clients elsewhere.

    So, this policy means professionals in two areas that appear to be vital for resettlement won’t be working there. How does this effect resettlement?

    It would be helpful to know just who World Relief accepts as a Christian. Do Unitarian make the cut? What about Christian Scientists? Not asking World Relief who they regard as a Christian is a serious hole in the story.

  • http://bendingthetwigs.blogspot.com Crimson Wife

    Plenty of non-profit organizations have power struggles and mass turnover as a result. My uncle was brought in as acting CEO of a secular non-profit to sort out the aftermath of one such power struggle. It didn’t make page 1 of the local newspaper, however.

    I suspect the hiring policy may have been the issue that brought the conflict to a head but that there is a LOT more to the story than we’re being told.

  • Jon in the Nati

    So I don’t know if “apocalyptic” is the appropriate word here.

    How so?

  • Jon in the Nati

    Sorry; #9 should read:

    there is a LOT more to the story than we’re being told.

    How so?

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Hi Ann, the Trib story does make reference to “an arm of the National Association of Evangelicals.” (I’m assuming it was there all along and not as a result of your comment. :-) ) The Seattle story mentioned it being founded by “evangelical leaders.”

  • http://bendingthetwigs.blogspot.com Crimson Wife

    Why did the WR feel the need to formally adopt the policy if it had been in place for years informally as claimed in the Tribune article? What kind of relationship did Ms. Emberling have with her bosses that she would try to go around them directly to the donors rather than work out the disagreement with them?

    It just seems like there’s a lot of background information that we’re not getting from the two articles…