In 2004 a group of 19 plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against the Salvation Army. The group claimed that the organization, which is a registered evangelical church and charity organization in the United States, was using public taxpayer money to proselytize their evangelical religious beliefs, discriminate, and terminate employees based on religious beliefs.
Anne Lown, a former employee of the organization, felt that this alleged practice was wrong and complained to her management and was subsequently terminated. Lown, who is Jewish, along with the other plaintiffs, contacted the New York branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), alleging that their religious beliefs were often brought into question and that they were threatened with termination or simply fired.
It is alleged that during the interview process, interviewees were asked about their church and religious practices, that those who would not disclose them were dismissed, and that in later interviews they could be threatened with termination if they refused to disclose such information.
Lown told The New York Times about alleged proselytizing before serving meals to those in need and constant religious discrimination against employees:
We were publicly funded, we were providing services on contract with New York City and State, and they were really imposing a religious test.
In 2010 a settlement was reached that barred the organization from proselytizing when working under a public contract, but the settlement denied any workplace discrimination and dismissed other "lesser" charges. The NYCLU appealed and continued to fight to address all the charges of violations of the U.S. Constitution.
This week the Salvation Army caved, and a new settlement has been reached, a settlement that upholds the separation of church and state and will no longer allow the organization to hold those they serve or those they employee to any religious standards while receiving taxpayer dollars. The organization will also pay $450,000 to two of the plaintiffs who were wrongfully terminated.
George W. Bush's administration and their "faith-based initiative," a program that has been continued under the Obama administration, made it very easy for organizations like the Salvation Army to receive taxpayer money for their services. Both administrations have consistently dodged questions about workplace-discrimination procedures at such organizations.
The Salvation Army receives millions in federal funding, 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 NYCLU.
For more than a decade, while receiving federal funds, the Salvation Army allegedly has been forcing the hungry to sit through sermons in order to receive the food they desperately need, and forcing their employees to be held to fundamentalist religious standards, standards that have come into question in the past when an Australian media relations director for the Salvation Army implied that gays and lesbians deserve death because that punishment is supposedly in line with scripture. The organization quickly apologized for the official's statement and asserted that it did not fit their Christian beliefs.
For decades it's been charged that the Salvation Army has hidden behind its religious charitable status to get away with such actions, but this new settlement finally says that regardless of their religious status, they can no longer use public funding for proselytizing and discrimination.
This is a major victory for groups like the ALCU, NYCLU, Americans United, and other secular groups fighting for the continued separation of church and state. In a statement on this week's ruling, Americans United showed their continued support for religious freedom and secular values, saying:
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.
NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman had this to say about the ruling:
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.
These groups have been vocal in calling for this program to be brought to an end. Obama promised to end it when campaigning for the presidency, but that campaign promise has been left long unfulfilled. He has widely ignored known discrimination even when a 2010 Advisory Council brought these actions to his attention. This settlement now sets a precedent in this country as to how these organizations can use their federal money.
The law protects churches like the Salvation Army from persecution and allows them to discriminate when hiring employees or offering their services, but they cannot accept federal funding if they do so. Once any church organization accepts federal funding to run their programs, they immediately fall under federal laws and must act accordingly.
Follow Dan Arel on Twitter: www.twitter.com/danarel