Army Surrenders: Religious Charity Gives Up On Fight To Discriminate

Thanks to this settlement, the Salvation Army will now be required to inform employees that they may not be asked about their religious beliefs, and they may not be required to adhere to the group’s evangelical principles.

A decade-old legal battle over the Salvation Army’s discriminatory workplace policies has ended in a settlement that’s favorable to church-state separation.

The Army is a church, but it receives public funding for much of its charity work. Thanks to this settlement, it will now be required to inform employees that they may not be asked about their religious beliefs, and they may not be required to adhere to the group’s evangelical principles. The Army will also pay attorneys’ fees and $450,000 in damages to the plaintiffs, although the group still refuses to officially acknowledge wrong-doing.

The suit was brought in 2004 by 19 former employees based in the group’s Greater New York division. The allegations are serious: Employees accuse the group of proselytizing as it delivered services funded by a public contract. And that’s likely no accident.

The plaintiffs also alleged that the group deliberately reorganized its internal structure to bring its charitable work more closely in line with its evangelical mission, reported The New York Times.

The American Civil Liberties Union’s New York affiliate brought the suit on behalf of the plaintiffs. The group argued that by introducing religion into its publicly funded social services divisions, the Salvation Army violated the First Amendment. 

Under the terms of a partial settlement reached in 2010, the group can no longer proselytize to the vulnerable populations served by its public contracts.

But there were other claims to be addressed. It seems that the group’s First Amendment violations didn’t end with proselytizing on the public dime. According to plaintiffs, the group also asked intrusive questions about the personal theological beliefs of its employees. Employees were also asked to endorse the group’s mission to “preach the Gospel of Jesus.”

Anne Lown, who once managed the group’s children’s services division in New York City, reported being asked to provide her employees with a form that requested information about their church attendance and the names of their ministers. The request made her uncomfortable, since a taxpayer-funded contract funded her division’s services.

“I felt it wasn’t right,” she told The Times. “We were publicly funded, we were providing services on contract with New York City and State, and they were really imposing a religious test.”

Lown, who is Jewish, complained—and promptly lost her job. The suit claims she’s not the only one. The NYCLU told the court that employees who objected to questions about their personal religious practices were consistently threatened with termination or fired outright.

The 2010 settlement denied these workplace discrimination claims, but the NYCLU appealed the ruling, and yesterday, the Salvation Army finally capitulated.

This legal battle didn’t emerge from a void. Instead, it’s the inevitable consequence of former President George W. Bush’s “faith-based” initiative. The Bush administration made it easier for organizations like the Salvation Army to receive public funds, and the Obama administration continued the practice. Both administrations simply dodged the question of hiring bias on religious groups in tax-funded programs.

Americans United has consistently opposed this type of taxpayer-funded religious discrimination. We’ve pointed out that sectarian groups are free to discriminate when they use privately raised funds for programs that are wholly church sponsored. But government money changed the equation.

We've also opposed proselytism in tax-supported programs. People in need should never be required to sit through a sermon in order to get fed.

Yesterday’s settlement confirms important legal standards. Despite its religious character, the Salvation Army can’t use public funds however it pleases. There are restrictions in place, and those restrictions are designed to protect the vulnerable populations served by these charities, in addition to charity staff. If the Salvation Army wants to preach the gospel of Christ, they’ll have to do it without assistance from American taxpayers.

Let’s hope other faith-based organizations pay heed to this settlement.