Can a Christian employer dictate its staff's sex lives?

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It’s been a tumultuous fortnight in HR at World Vision U.S.. Last Monday, the Christian nonprofit announced that it would allow the hiring of devout Christians who were legally married to someone of the same sex.

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 U.S. 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.

World Vision Canada spokesperson Bob Neufeld says the organization operates separately from its U.S. counterpart, which is considered a church under U.S. law, while the Canadian organization is not given the same religious status.

"We fully comply with all federal and provincial laws that prohibit discrimination in hiring practices on the basis of race, religion, colour, gender or sexual orientation," he says.

In the past religious organizations in Canada have been allowed to make hiring decisions based on religious beliefs, a recent court decision, Heintz v Christian Horizon, found that the organization could not discrimnate based on sexual orientation because it was not primarily engaged in serving the interests of other like-minded Christians. Even for religious organizations, asking about orientation is not recommended.

“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.”

While the tension in Canada is not at the level of the US, local employers can still learn from the lessons south of the border - especially as Canada's human rights protections are stricter that those in most states. Musell also notes that employees are becoming more conscious of their privacy rights.

“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? Could such a policy ever be legally applied? Let us know in the comments.

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