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NYCLU Sues Salvation Army and Suffolk County Social Services for Religious Discrimination Against Employees in Government Funded

NYCLU Sues Salvation Army and Suffolk County Social Services for Religious Discrimination Against Employees in Government Funded Social Services for Children

February 24, 2004


The NYCLU’s filing (PDF)

Suffolk County, New York: The New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit today in federal court charging The Salvation Army with religious discrimination against employees in its government funded social services in New York City and on Long Island. The lawsuit asks the federal court to order the 136 year old charity to stop the practices and to rule that the government funding of the Salvation Army’s faith based discrimination against its social services employees in foster care, adoption, HIV, juvenile detention and other social services is illegal. Social services agencies for New York State, New York City and Nassau County and Suffolk County are named also as co-defendants. The Salvation Army provides social services for more than 2,000 children each day who are placed with the charity by the government. The programs are funded almost exclusively by taxpayer money. The agency receives $89 million in taxpayer funds for social services and employs about 800 people. In describing the lawsuit, Jared Feuer, Director of the Suffolk Chapter of the NYCLU, noted, “The NYCLU believes strongly in the First Amendment right of religious groups to practice their faith. But they cannot use taxpayer money to discriminate against the very people who provide these funds.” In Suffolk County, the Department of Social Services provides funds for The Salvation Army to perform publicly financed services with respect to families that are receiving government family assistance payments and families that are transitioning off assistance – what is often termed “welfare to work.” Despite the secular nature of this work, The Salvation Army recently began to require all employees in its Social Services for Children division to fill out a form on which they: a) identify their church affiliation and all other churches attended for the past decade, b) authorize their religious leaders to reveal private communications to The Salvation Army; and c) pledge to adhere to the religious mission of The Salvation Army which, according to The Salvation Army, is to “preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” Moreover, new job descriptions for every social services employee now require compliance with The Salvation Army’s religious mission statement. Previously, the social services unit had its own mission statement which was completely secular. All this began as part of a Reorganization Plan last year by the national leaders of the charity “to narrow the gap” between the ecclesiastical Salvation Army and the social services component. The goal of the Reorganization Plan was to ensure that “as a Christian agency […] a reasonable number of Salvationists along with other Christians [will be employed by The Salvation Army.]” The suit was filed on behalf of eighteen current and former Salvation Army employees of varying religious and non-religious backgrounds. They include many of the most respected senior managers in the agency. Marina Obermaier, a resident of the town of Huntington, is the Assistant Director for Homefinding of the Social Services for Children Foster Home and Adoption Services program of The Salvation Army. She is responsible for the implementation of all New York State and City laws, regulations and procedures relating to the study and maintenance of foster homes. “We work with foster parents who are gay, not married or otherwise non-traditional in their lifestyles. We apply non-discriminatory guidelines when working with these parents. I’m really fearful of these new guidelines of The Salvation Army which would be in conflict with our work with foster families and young people,” says Obermaier. Added Mary Jane Dessable who is the Management Information Systems Director for The Salvation Army and has worked for the charity for 12 years, “Although I am not a Salvationist, I have sung for their Devotionals…attended their Good Friday services. I participated because I wanted to, not because it was required or requested of me.” And Margaret Geissman who is the former Human Resources Manager for Social Services for Children with The Salvation Army has left the charity rather than provide personal information about employees. “When I refused to answer questions that I felt were clearly illegal and violated my employees’ privacy, I was harassed to the point where eventually I resigned. As a Christian, I deeply resent the use of discriminatory employment practices in the name of Christianity.” NYCLU Legal Director Arthur Eisenberg noted that The Salvation Army’s new employment practices “have injected religion into the workplace in ways that violate the anti-discrimination principles of the Fourteenth Amendment.” Martin Garbus, whose firm, Davis and Gilbert is co-counsel with the NYCLU, cited President Bush’s Faith-Based Initiative as the catalyst for the current situation and called it “the greatest transfer of wealth from governmental bodies to evangelical churches. Federal, state and local services are being used to spread the evangelical message.” In addition to Eisenberg, Lieberman and Garbus, plaintiffs are also represented by NYCLU staff attorney Beth Haroules; NYCLU co-counsel Deborah Karpatkin; and Howard Rubin and Gregg Brochin from the Davis and Gilbert law firm.  


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