Whenever public funds are involved, so is the Constitution.
That's what Americans United reminded La Crosse County, Wisc., in an April letter to county officials regarding their $50,000 contract with a local Salvation Army homeless shelter.
AU had received complaints that the Salvation Army regularly presents prayers and sermons at meals and holds religious services at its shelter facility. Yet the Army is in contract with the county, and in previous contracts, the Army promised in exchange for taking $50,000 in public funds to operate the shelter, it would not use the money for religious services.
It seemed like a fair and constitutional deal. The only problem is the county seems to have failed in enforcing this contract.
And the Army hasn't upheld its end of the bargain, either. Maj. Curtiss A. Hartley, the Army's corps officer in La Crosse, told the La Crosse Tribune, "We don't hide from the fact that we are a religious organization...."
Maj. Hartley also told a local radio station this week, "Someone walks in off the street and they have the option to take advantage of the meal program, the option to take advantage of the food pantry, the option to take part in our worship program."
AU did not threaten legal action in its letter, but has asked county officials to look into developing safeguards that would ensure the homeless shelter does not engage in any unconstitutional religious activities while taking government funds.
On its Web site, the Army calls itself "an evangelical part of the universal Christian Church. Its message is based on the Bible. Its ministry is motivated by the love of God. Its mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination."
That's all fine, until the charitable group begins to operate with taxpayer dollars. In the past, AU has warned city and state governments against funding faith.
In 2007, AU warned a city in Idaho against a property swap between the Salvation Army and the city. The land exchange came at the benefit of the Army and also called for a chapel to be included in the Salvation Army community center. AU warned that care must be taken to make sure tax funds did not subsidize religious activities.
Similarly, in 2004, AU warned Janesville, Wisc., not to allocate $250,000 in federal money for a Salvation Army shelter where religious programs were to take place.
At that time, the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, AU executive director, said, the Constitution protects taxpayers from being forced to support religion and protects vulnerable citizens from having religion imposed on them.
"People who need help should be able to get that assistance without being pressured to listen to sermons," said Lynn. "If the Salvation Army's goal is to win souls, it must pay for that with its own money and not expect subsidies from the taxpayers.
"Government officials are right to insist on accountability and constitutional safeguards when they spend public dollars," Lynn said.
The La Crosse Tribune said county and Army officials plan to meet next month to discuss AU's letter.