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Lown et al. v. The Salvation Army et al. (Challenging government-funded, faith-based practices of The Salvation Army)

This lawsuit challenges the government-funded, faith-based practices of The Salvation Army: its attempt to engage in the religious indoctrination of its social services employees; its provision of social services that are tailored to its religious principles; and its trimming of its workforce to convey its religious message. Although The Salvation Army is an evangelical Christian church, for many years it performed its responsibilities as a government-funded social services agency in the New York metropolitan area without injecting religion into its workplace and into its provision of social services. Plaintiffs contend, however, that under a reorganization plan initiated in 2003, the church began to break down that wall of separation and introduced greater religious control over its government-funded social services.

The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized that the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause prohibits government-financed or government-sponsored indoctrination of religious faith. The NYCLU’s lawsuit claimed that, when government agencies provide funding to religious organizations to administer social services such as foster care or day care, the agencies are constitutionally required to monitor the programs to ensure that religious organizations do not use government money to engage in religious indoctrination of the beneficiaries of the programs. The suit also claimed that federal, state and local anti-discrimination laws prohibited The Salvation Army from discriminating on the basis of religion against social workers employed in government-funded programs. Finally, the suit claimed that two employees were constructively terminated from their jobs for protesting The Salvation Army’s introduction of religion into the workplace.

In 2005, a federal judge recognized, as had the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1988 decision (Bowen v. Kendrick), that the city and state agencies cannot allow religious organizations to use government funds to proselytize or to impose religious messages on those who rely on them for social services, and allowed those claims to go forward. In the same ruling, the judge dismissed claims that The Salvation Army and government agencies had engaged in impermissible employment discrimination when it required employees in the government-funded programs to disclose their religious beliefs and practices and to pursue the evangelical Christian mission of The Salvation Army. That ruling can be appealed. Also, the 2005 decision did not dismiss the claims of the two employees who claimed constructive discharge for protesting The Salvation Army’s introduction of religion in the workplace, and the litigation of those claims against The Salvation Army is continuing.

In a settlement agreement signed by a federal judge on Feb. 16, 2010, the government defendants adopted auditing procedures or standards of conduct to ensure that The Salvation Army does not force people in need of government-funded services to engage in religious activities, such as worship or religious instruction. The procedures and standards will also ensure that recipients of social services are not discriminated against because of their religious beliefs. 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. 

S.D.N.Y., Index No. 04 Civ. 1562 (SHS) (direct)

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