When the Salvation Army started asking questions about the religious beliefs of its staff members, it became a serious problem for 19 employees – including one with 24 years of service named Anne Lown.

“I thought it was illegal,” Lown, former assistant executive director of the Army’s social services for children in New York City, told Church & State. “What right do they have to know about my religion?”

Lown said her department, which had hundreds of employees and was responsible for overseeing foster care and other programs for children, was 98-99 percent funded by government contracts. But higher ups at the Salvation Army were unhappy that her department “was not more Christian and did not reflect [the Army’s] ‘mission,’” Lown said, so they started demanding to know about employees’ beliefs – and firing some staffers who didn’t give the right answers.  

Now, it seems the Salvation Army will have a harder time imposing a religious test on its staff thanks to a settlement in a decade-old case. Following a March 18 agreement in Lown v. The Salvation Army, the Army will be barred from engaging in discriminatory hiring practices for employees paid with money from government contracts. This is thanks to Lown and other employees who fought back when the group’s Greater New York division fired or threatened to fire those who did not adhere to the Army’s religious dogma.  

Mention the Salvation Army, and most people think of bell ringers who seek contributions outside of stores at Christmas or of trucks that collect donations of used clothing and furniture for resale at thrift stores. But the Salvation Army isn’t merely a collection of charitable workers looking to help the poor. It is an evangelical Christian religious denomination above all else, and, although it’s not usually thought of as being political, the Salvation Army has in the past employed Religious Right-style assaults on the constitutional principle of church-state separation.

Despite its sectarian cast, the Salvation Army receives millions in federal funding annually – around $188 million in New York alone – to run its homeless shelters, soup kitchens and after-school programs. Around 300 New York employees are paid with federal funds, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), which filed suit on behalf of Lown and the other plaintiffs.

For Lown, the fight began when she replaced her boss, who was fired after 27 years because he had refused to distribute a questionnaire asking about the religious beliefs of his subordinates. When Lown replaced him, she was also asked to provide her employees with a form that requested information about their church attendance and the names of their mini­sters. Lown, who is Jewish, was not comfortable with that request. And she said so.

“I would not distribute it, and I would not fill out the form,” she said. “I was just really clear that this should not be happening.”

Lown later filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission at the advice of the NYCLU, which eventually led to her forced resignation from the Army.

According to Lown’s subsequent lawsuit, she wasn’t the only one to have this type of experience. The NYCLU said that employees who objected to questions about their personal religious practices were consistently threatened with termination or fired outright. According to plaintiffs, the group asked intrusive questions about the personal theological beliefs of its employees including pressuring them to identify their church affiliation and the frequency of their church attendance. Employees were even asked to endorse the group’s mission to “preach the Gospel of Jesus.”

In 2004, Lown and 18 other employees who had worked on government contracts filed suit. Those employees accused the group of pros­e­lytizing as it delivered services funded by a public contract, the result of a decision to deliberately reorganize the Army’s internal structure so as to bring its charitable work more closely in line with its evangelical mission, reported The New York Times.

One former employee who served as a plaintiff in the lawsuit, Mary Jane Dessables, told the Associated Press in 2004 that she resented the Army’s religious inquiries; many of her colleagues were afraid that the organization was collecting this religious information so that it could weed out gay and non-Christian employees.

The NYCLU argued that by introducing religion into its publicly funded social services divisions, the Salvation Army violated the First Amendment. This eventually led to a 2010 settlement that required every government agency listed in the lawsuit to ensure for the next two years that the money they provided to the Salvation Army did not subsidize religious activities.

But that settlement only resolved part of the church-state problem. Thanks to this latest settlement, the 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. 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 settlement will be subject to court enforcement for two years.

Lown expressed her satisfaction with the outcome but remains concerned that the Army seems more interested in spreading its faith than doing charitable work. She called the settlement “the best we could have gotten” and added, “I think it’s important that people be vigilant.”

The NYCLU said the settlement does not disrupt the Army’s religious practices; it merely seeks to ensure government funds are not supporting religious activity.

“Our settlement makes certain that The Salvation Army retains the right to practice and promote its religion while ensuring that it will not use government money to discriminate or indoctrinate,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman in a statement. “We pursued this case for a decade so that no New Yorker faces discrimination or evangelism when they seek vital social services paid for by taxpayers, and so that employees in government-funded social services programs are protected from discrimination in the workplace. Taxpayers cannot foot the bill for discrimination or evangelism.”

Critics have argued that this lengthy lawsuit resulted from bad presidential policies. During the term of President George W. Bush, the White House made it easier for groups like the Salvation Army to secure federal funding through the “faith-based” initiative, which allows religious organizations to secure government contracts for various services.

In 2001, the Army found itself in the middle of a controversy over gay rights after The Washington Post reported that Army officials had been working behind the scenes with top advisors to the Bush administration to ensure that the Army would have the right to discriminate under the faith-based initiative while retaining its government subsidy. In return, Army officials agreed to give the proposal a high-profile endorsement. (See “Kettle Full of Controversy,” September 2001 Church & State.)

Talk of a secret deal tarnished the Army’s image for a time, and some people boycotted the red kettles that Christmas. But the controversy mask­ed a larger concern: Under the Bush administration, religious organizations were freed from an executive order signed in 1941 by then-President Frank­lin D. Roosevelt barring dis­crimination by federal defense contractors, which was later expanded by future administrations to cover all con­tractors. That action set the stage for the subsequent Army crackdown on LGBT employees and others who failed to meet the Army’s new litmus test.

“The [Army] felt they had the permission of the highest office to do this,” Lown  said. “They felt encouraged by the Bush administration.”

The Obama administration has unfortunately allowed this discrimination to continue in the “faith-based” initiative.

Americans United has pushed the Obama administration to end hiring discrimination through the “faith-based” initiative, but the administration has dragged its feet. In 2011, the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination, an organization made up of religi­ous, civil liberties, labor and advocacy organizations, which AU chairs, asked Obama to undo Bush’s handiwork.

Americans United welcomed the settlement. On its “Wall of Separation” blog, Sarah Jones wrote, “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.”