In an interview with a fundamentalist Christian magazine, the company’s president, Richard Stearns, said the new policy would allow the employer to treat all staff members the same way, making their policy more consistent with their other beliefs.
While the world was still taking in the announcement two days later, it flipped course with a public letter. “The board acknowledged they made a mistake,” Stearns wrote, “and chose to revert to our longstanding conduct policy requiring sexual abstinence for all single employees and faithfulness within the Biblical covenant of marriage between a man and a woman.”
Executives at World Vision refused to answer HRM's questions asking how the policy is applied; whether candidates are required to disclose sexual history; and whether employees have been fired for contravening the policy. But the issue raises a question that may seem foreign to this modern era: can a company dictate the sexual activity of its employees?
Employment lawyer Wendy Musell says that in the eyes of the law, it’s unlikely that a proactive application of such a policy would be acceptable.
“Asking an employee about their sexual activity and sex life, I cannot think of a time that would be appropriate,” she says.
Nevertheless, religious organizations still have exemptions so they are permitted to discriminate according to sexual orientation. However, asking about orientation could be a minefield for such employers.
“Indicating that one is married in a same-sex relationship is very different than discussing one’s sex life. Employees need to be aware of that and not inappropriately mix the two up,” adds Musell. “As these issues evolve, employees need to be more sensitive to the difference between sexual orientation and sexual activity.”
The tension between religious freedoms and individual protections is so heated that it would be wise for employers to avoid becoming a legal guinea pig. Musell cites Hobby Lobby as an example of an employer caught in the tension.
“There is a big push for increased privacy in the workplace… as the right to privacy conflicts with what is stated as religious beliefs,” Musell warns, “those two issues will likely interact in a way that comes into conflict.”
Have you ever worked for a company like this? How could such a policy ever be legally applied? Let us know in the comments.
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It’s been a tumultuous fortnight in HR at World Vision. Last Monday, the international Christian nonprofit announced that it would allow the hiring of devout Christians who were legally married to someone of the same sex.