Editor’s Note: Update is posted below.
A leading global Christian charity has announced it will recognize the same-sex marriages of its U.S. employees, a move that has left religious conservative groups raging.
The charity World Vision is one of America’s largest charities. It focuses on providing disaster relief and aid to nearly 100 countries across the globe, and has more than 1,000 employees in the United States alone. It has a strict Christian ethos and employees are expected to live up to somewhat restrictive codes of conduct. In the past, this included a very broad stipulation that employees would only be able to enter into a marriage between one man and one woman. Break this rule and your job would be in jeopardy.
Not anymore though. On Monday, March 24, World Vision announced that while it would be keeping other aspects of its employee agreement, like the long standing no sex before marriage rule, it will no longer class same-sex marriages as a violation of the agreement.
World Vision U.S. president Richard Stearns prefaced the changes with a reassurance to those opposed to gay marriage: World Vision isn’t taking sides, but rather wants to “defer” to the authority of local churches, some of whom may be accepting of gay marriage.
He told Christian Today: “I want to be clear that we have not endorsed same-sex marriage, but we have chosen to defer to the authority of local churches on this issue. I want to reassure you that we are not sliding down some slippery slope of compromise, nor are we diminishing the authority of Scripture in our work. We have always affirmed traditional marriage as a God-ordained institution. Nothing in our work around the world with children and families will change.”
Nevertheless, Stearns is quoted as saying that this change, which only applies to the U.S. branch, is first and foremost about unity and trying to keep churches together. He has also clarified that no lawsuit or threat of legal action prompted this change. It is a narrow policy change, he said, and one that should allow the group to move forward carrying out its primary function: serving people in need.
This is all reasonable and should be non-controversial stuff, but upon hearing this news the big players in the religious conservative crowd have decried the move with their usual hyperbole.
Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention is quoted as saying: “If sexual activity outside of a biblical definition of marriage is morally neutral, then, yes, we should avoid making an issue of it. If, though, what the Bible clearly teaches and what the church has held for 2,000 years is true, then refusing to call for repentance is unspeakably cruel and, in fact, devilish.”
Surprisingly, Moore’s was one of the more measured responses.
Billy Graham, son of Franklin Graham and himself part of a relief organization known as Samaritan’s Purse, has called the new policy ungodly and, in comments made to the anti-gay Family Research Council, suggested that this means World Vision might soon approve of polygamous relationships. “It’s obvious World Vision doesn’t believe in the Bible. I am sickened over it.”
Other religious conservatives have called for a boycott and for donations to be made elsewhere — so in effect, punish the disaster victims that World Vision helps because World Vision chose not to overstep its authority and instead recognize that some churches do support same-sex marriage. How Christian.
This isn’t the only instance where recently religious conservatives have approached near-apoplexy over the gay marriage issue. Readers will of course remember the Chick-fil-A firestorm of a few years ago where owner Dan Cathy decided to ape his family’s “traditional marriage” stance. Just last week, however, Cathy said in an interview that while he still believes gay marriage is wrong, he shouldn’t have made it an issue.
Cathy told the Atlanta Journal Constitution that “making the company a symbol in the marriage debate” had been a mistake, and that the lingering affiliation with anti-gay groups which jumped to defend Cathy has left a bad taste for many:
“Every leader goes through different phases of maturity, growth and development and it helps by (recognizing) the mistakes that you make,” Cathy said. “And you learn from those mistakes. If not, you’re just a fool. I’m thankful that I lived through it and I learned a lot from it. [...] Consumers want to do business with brands that they can interface with, that they can relate with,” Cathy said. “And it’s probably very wise from our standpoint to make sure that we present our brand in a compelling way that the consumer can relate to.”
Again, this isn’t Cathy changing his personal views but rather recognizing the reality that opposing same-sex marriage might not be great for business.
Religious conservatives, however, have labeled Cathy a “sell out,” with Peter LaBarbera of the hate group Americans for Truth About Homosexuality telling the American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer: ”Let’s face it, he sort of sold out all those people who came for Chick-fil-A Day to defend his right to speak out. It’s snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.”
Interestingly, LaBarbera went on to say, “The gay activists are playing hardball, and I think the Christians are playing tee-ball. We’re getting wiped out.”
Yet, here’s the thing. Neither of these changes of heart came due to direct pressure from gay rights groups. What the hard-line religious conservatives seem to be completely unable to grasp is that the middle ground has shifted dramatically and is now firmly with same-sex couples and their constitutional right to access marriage. Faced with this fact, and so many successive court wins, it seems the religious right is turning on others who might once have been classed as being within the conservative fold simply because they have recognized the reality of marriage equality and choosing to move past it because it does not impact their lives or their private religious beliefs.
If these fringe religious right groups don’t accept that, they will soon run themselves out of business. Of course, that’s no bad thing.
On Wednesday, and after an intense backlash from the religious right, World Vision announced its board had taken a public vote and has now reversed its decision to hire employees who are in same-sex marriages. In a statement issued by World Vision US, the charity says “we failed to be consistent with World Vision U.S.’s commitment to the traditional understanding of Biblical marriage and our own Statement of Faith, which says, “We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.” And we also failed to seek enough counsel from our own Christian partners. As a result, we made a change to our conduct policy that was not consistent with our Statement of Faith and our commitment to the sanctity of marriage.”
The statement continues, “We are brokenhearted over the pain and confusion we have caused many of our friends, who saw this decision as a reversal of our strong commitment to Biblical authority. We ask that you understand that this was never the board’s intent. We are asking for your continued support. We commit to you that we will continue to listen to the wise counsel of Christian brothers and sisters, and we will reach out to key partners in the weeks ahead.”
In a move that is likely to please neither side, the statement closes with an attempt at damage control in the form of an appeal to the LGBT community, saying, “While World Vision U.S. stands firmly on the biblical view of marriage, we strongly affirm that all people, regardless of their sexual orientation, are created by God and are to be loved and treated with dignity and respect.”
Prior to World Vision’s original policy change, few people were even aware that World Vision banned employees from entering into same-sex marriages. Now that it has made an issue of the policy, by first repealing it and then reinstating the ban, it seems World Vision has engaged in an exercise of PR disaster. It first lost out on donations from the religious right who swiftly moved to boycott the charity, and now may lose out due to those who support LGBT rights reconsidering their donations. Certainly, while World Vision might like this to be the end of the matter, the issue seems set to rumble on for some time yet.
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