The prominent Christian relief agency World Vision said Monday it will hire Christians who are in same-sex marriages, a dramatic policy change on one of the most divisive social issues facing religious groups.
Richard Stearns, president of the international humanitarian relief group, announced the hiring change for the United States in a letter to staff. Stearns said the World Vision board had prayed for years about how to handle the issue as Christian denominations took different stands on recognizing same-sex relationships.
"The board and I wanted to prevent this divisive issue from tearing World Vision apart and potentially crippling our ability to accomplish our vital kingdom mission of living and serving the poorest of the poor in the name of Christ," Stearns wrote in the letter.
The agency's new hiring policy was first reported by Christianity Today magazine.
Based in Washington state and started by evangelicals, World Vision now has an international operating budget of nearly $1 billion and conducts economic development and emergency relief projects around the world. Last year, the charity reported receiving 18 percent of its annual funding from the federal government.
Federal agencies have for several years faced pressure to require any group that receives federal funding to end any hiring restrictions on gays and lesbians. Stearns insisted the humanitarian relief group wasn't responding to any outside lobbying or concerns about government funding.
"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," Stearns said.
World Vision requires employees to affirm, through the agency's statement of faith or the Apostle's Creed, that they follow Christ. Stearns said the agency will continue to follow that policy, including requiring employees to remain celibate outside of marriage. World Vision says it hires staff from dozens of denominations with different views of gay relationships.
"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," Stearns wrote. "We are the same World Vision you have always believed in."
A few other conservative religious charities have tried to take similar steps, prompting controversy and a drop in donations, but World Vision is the largest and most prominent by far to do so.