NYCLU Settlement Ensures Salvation Army Will Not Discriminate Using Government Funds

March 18, 2014 —  In a settlement approved today, The Salvation Army has agreed not to discriminate against beneficiaries of government-funded social services or against employees administering those services. The settlement finally ends a 2004 New York Civil Liberties Union lawsuit that challenged an effort by The Salvation Army to require social workers and other employees in its government-funded social services programs to identify their church affiliation and the frequency of their church attendance, to acknowledge that The Salvation Army’s mission is to provide social services in accordance with “the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” and to commit themselves to providing social work services “consistent with the religious … policies and principles of The Salvation Army.”

“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. “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.”

The government pays The Salvation Army more than $188 million to provide social services to New Yorkers. Nearly 300 employees are paid with public money to run services such as daycare centers, homeless shelters and group homes for people with developmental disabilities and provide HIV counseling and services for the elderly.

Though The Salvation Army is a church, for years its Greater New York Division was careful to maintain a wall between its religious and social service arms. This allowed the organization to perform its government-funded social services in the New York metropolitan area without promoting religion.

But a 2003 national “reorganization plan” sought to “narrow the gap” between The Salvation Army church and its social services division. The national Salvation Army suddenly began requiring all social service employees in its New York City division to identify their church affiliation and to adhere to the religious mission of The Salvation Army. New job descriptions also required social workers to recognize The Army’s religious mission, significantly altering the atmosphere of the workplace. The NYCLU filed its lawsuit on behalf of 19 employees working on these government-funded social services.

In 2010, the NYCLU settled the portion of its case against government agencies that had contracts with The Salvation Army. Those government entities – including the New York City Administration for Children Services, New York City Division of Juvenile Justice, New York State Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, New York State Department of Health, Nassau County Department of Social Services and Suffolk County Department of Social Services – agreed to a system for monitoring The Salvation Army to ensure that it does not impose religion on recipients of its government-funded social services.

New York City and New York State now use the auditing protocols developed by the NYCLU to monitor all religious providers of social services in the state, and the system has become a model for municipalities nationwide to ensure that religion doesn’t creep into the provision of government-sponsored social services.

The case continued against The Salvation Army, focusing on the retaliation claims of Anne Lown, the lead plaintiff in Lown v. The Salvation Army and former associate executive director of Social Services for Children at The Salvation Army, where she worked for 25 years, and Margaret Geissman, its human resources director. Both protested the imposition of religious requirements on the secular, government-funded employees, and both suffered retaliation as a consequence and were forced out of their jobs. They claimed that such retaliation violated the New York City Human Rights Law.

“This settlement ensures that The Salvation Army, a Christian church and major provider of social services, will not use a religious litmus test in the employment of government-funded social workers,” Lown said. “I count on New York City to enforce its human rights laws that prohibit all unlawful discrimination, including religion and sexual orientation, in employment practices as an integral part of all city contracts.”

Today’s settlement, reached as the case was set for trial, concludes the case and commits The Salvation Army to monitoring by the court and the NYCLU for two years.

“The Salvation Army is one of the largest providers of government-funded social services in New York City,” said NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Beth Haroules. “As such, it is critical that The Salvation Army serves all New Yorkers in need, without regard to their religion, sexual orientation or anything else. We commend The Salvation Army for recognizing the importance of providing their much needed services in an atmosphere free from religious discrimination.”

The Salvation Army must also give both current and new employees who work on government-funded social services a document that says The Salvation Army abides by equal employment opportunity measures with respect to creed and sexual orientation. It also says The Salvation Army requires its lay employees to provide services to people consistent with sound social work practices, without regard to whether those practices conflict with The Salvation Army’s religious principles.

The document confirms that lay employees in government-funded programs are not required to participate in religious activities in the workplace, and states that The Salvation Army does not inquire, either orally or in writing, into the religious beliefs or practices of its employees and that it does not require anyone to profess adherence to The Salvation Army’s religious policies and principles. It does, however, require employees to conduct themselves in a manner consistent with The Salvation Army’s religious and charitable policies and principles, and not in a manner designed to undermine its religious mission.

“Our employment rights laws protect those who suffer retaliation for opposing discriminatory practices,” said NYCLU co-counsel Deborah Karpatkin. “Anne Lown and Margaret Geissman stood up for what was right by protesting the imposition of legally questionable religious requirements on The Salvation Army’s secular, government-funded employees. Their protests cost them the jobs they loved. This settlement is a vindication for them, and for the other Salvation Army employees who participated in this lawsuit.”

The Salvation Army has also agreed to pay $450,000, addressing damages for Lown and Geissman, and attorneys’ fees.

In addition to Haroules and Karpatkin, attorneys on this case include New York Civil Liberties Union Legal Director Arthur Eisenberg and attorney Martin Garbus. The case was before Judge Sidney H. Stein in the Southern District of New York.