Salvation Army Reaches Settlement in Church-State Suit

The Salvation Army and the New York Civil Liberties Union have reached a settlement in a longstanding suit that sought to prevent the evangelical organization from violating church-state separation when providing social services.

In the settlement, which was approved Tuesday by a federal judge, numerous city, state and federal government agencies named in the lawsuit agreed to monitor The Salvation Army for two years to ensure that it does not impose its beliefs on recipients of its government-funded services.

"This agreement protects the religious freedom of all New Yorkers who rely on faith-based organizations for crucial government-funded social services," NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said in a statement Wednesday.

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"Our taxpayer money shouldn't support religious indoctrination of anyone – particularly children. And no one should be subject to proselytizing because they need foster care, adoption, child care or HIV services," she added. "This settlement ensures that religious organizations may not preach to people who receive government-funded social services or discriminate against them based on their religious beliefs."

The Salvation Army on Thursday declined to comment.

The lawsuit was filed in 2004 on behalf of 18 former and current employees of The Salvation Army. They were challenging a policy requiring social workers and other employees in its government-funded social services programs to identify their church affiliation, the frequency of their church attendance, and to sign an endorsement of The Salvation Army's mission to "preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ."

Anne Lown, who worked for the charity for more than two decades, commented, "I do not think my religious beliefs nor the religious beliefs of the 800 employees in Social Services for Children are any business of the Salvation Army."

The suit also alleges proselytizing, such as prayers offered with snacks in a day care program.

Jonathan Pines, the attorney representing the city in the litigation, told The New York Times that the Administration for Children's Services could not confirm allegations of proselytizing.

"While there was no evidence of any problems in the delivery of services by The Salvation Army under its various contracts with the relevant City agencies and no allegation by plaintiffs that the City engaged in any wrongdoing, we believe that the settlement is an appropriate resolution of the issues," Pines stated to the local newspaper.

According to the NYCLU, The Salvation Army previously had a secular mission statement for its government-funded social services agency. But a "reorganization plan" in 2003 directed the organization to narrow the gap between the ecclesiastical Salvation Army and the social services component. The plan included requiring social service employees to acknowledge and adhere to its mission of providing social services only in a manner consistent with its religious principles.

The goal was that "[t]here should be one Salvation army with a single Mission Statement, driven by the vision of one leader."

The organization's current mission statement reads: "Its mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination."

Since the "reorganization plan" efforts began, plaintiffs in the lawsuit allege that "manifestations of Christian faith have appeared in the workplace, including recitation of prayers at staff meetings and functions [and] frequent depositing of religious publications in employee mailboxes."

When announcing the lawsuit, Lieberman made clear, "This case is not about the right of The Salvation Army to practice or promote its religion. They have every right to do so, but not with government money. The Salvation Army cannot use taxpayer money to practice religious discrimination against its social services employees."

In 2005, U.S. District Judge Sidney H. Stein dismissed claims that the Christian organization and the government agencies had engaged in impermissible employment discrimination by requiring employees in the government-funded programs to disclose their religious beliefs and practices and to uphold the mission of the Salvation Army. But Stein did not dismiss the charge that government agencies had unconstitutionally used public money to advance the Salvation Army's religious work.

As part of the settlement, the NYCLU will receive regular reports from the government agencies on The Salvation Army's compliance with the agreement. A federal court will maintain jurisdiction over the agreement for two years to ensure that it is enforced.

The Greater New York Division of The Salvation Army operates over 140 programs out of 39 corps community centers. In addition to Corps-based programs, the local division administers a wide variety of social services through contracts with government agencies such as the New York City Department of Homeless Services and the New York City Administration for Children's Services.

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