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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