By Bernard Vaughan
NEW YORK, March 18 (Reuters) - The Salvation Army has settled a lawsuit brought a decade ago by now-former employees who accused the U.S. charity of pressuring them to follow its religious mission while they worked on government-funded social service projects.
The organization's greater New York division agreed to provide employees of its government-funded services including daycare centers and homeless shelters a document saying it will not ask about their religious beliefs or require them to profess adherence to its religious policies, said the New York Civil Liberties Union, which represented the plaintiffs.
The document will also state that employees are not required to participate in religious activities in the workplace, the NYCLU said in a statement. The charity agreed to pay $450,000 in damages and attorneys' fees to two plaintiffs.
U.S. District Judge Sidney Stein, who in 2005 had dismissed some claims against the Salvation Army, approved the settlement in Manhattan federal court on Tuesday.
The Salvation Army, known for collecting donations with bells and red kettles during the winter holiday season, did not admit to any wrongdoing.
"The Salvation Army is pleased that this longstanding litigation has now been settled on terms first suggested by The Salvation Army many years ago, that is, confirmation in writing of policies long followed by its Greater New York Division with respect to its employees in government-funded programs," the organization said on Tuesday.
The NYCLU brought the discrimination lawsuit in 2004 on behalf of 19 current and former employees who worked for the organization's government-funded operations.
The employees claimed that a 2003 Salvation Army reorganization required job applicants and employees to acknowledge that the group's mission was to provide services consistent with "the Gospel of Jesus Christ."
That occurred after the administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush made it easier for evangelical churches to obtain federal money for so-called faith-based initiatives, lawyers for the plaintiffs said at the time.
The plaintiffs claimed they were asked to identify their church and how often they attended. The lawsuit also said that employees lost their jobs or were threatened with firing when they declined to reveal their religious practices.
The Salvation Army's greater New York division currently has more than $188 million in government contracts to provide social services, according to the NYCLU. Nearly 300 employees are paid with public money, according to the NYCLU.
"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," NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said in the press release. (Reporting by Bernard Vaughan; Editing by Scott Malone and Steve Orlofsky)