In a mixed decision, a federal judge has refused to dismiss claims by the New York Civil Liberties Union against various City and State social services agencies for the improper use of government funds by the Salvation Army to convey religious messages in their social services programs in violation of the Establishment clause of the Constitution. US District Court Judge Sidney Stein also ruled that the NYCLU may proceed against the Salvation Army with claims of retaliation against employees for filing claims of religious discrimination.
Judge Stein, however, dismissed claims that the Salvation Army 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 evangelical Christian mission of the Salvation Army.
"The court properly ruled that the City and State agencies cannot allow the Salvation Army to use government funds to proselytize or to impose their religious beliefs on those who rely on them for day care, foster care, adoption, juvenile detention and HIV services. Under the ruling, government funds cannot be used by faith-based social services agencies to promote religion when they provide social services to the intended beneficiaries." said Donna Lieberman, the Executive Director of the NYCLU.
"The court has, wrongly, we believe, exempted the Salvation Army from civil rights laws that generally prohibit discrimination against employees based on religion or creed. It allows the Salvation Army, because it is a church, to use a religious litmus test to hire and fire day care, foster care and other social services employees, even though they are paid almost exclusively with taxpayer funds."
"Faith based organizations that use government funds to provide social services to the general public, should not be permitted to engage in rampant discrimination against employees based on their religion -- to fire or demote all Jews, Muslims, Christians, or atheists, indeed anyone who does not practice the prescribed faith in the prescribed manner."
The NYCLU trusts that the Salvation Army, notwithstanding this opinion, will adhere to the commitment it made during the course of this case, to refrain from religious discrimination against its employees.
The NYCLU lawsuit Lown vs. Salvation Army, filed on February 24, 2004 charged the Salvation Army and the government agencies with the improper use of government funds to promote religion and to engage in unlawful religious discrimination against employees.
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 $89 million in taxpayer funds for its social services division which employs about 800 people.
The NYCLU is considering future options in proceeding with all aspects of its lawsuit.
Plaintiffs are represented by NYCLU Legal Director Arthur N. Eisenberg and staff attorney Beth Haroules; NYCLU co-counsel Deborah Karpatkin; and Martin Garbus, Howard Rubin and Gregg Brochin from the Davis and Gilbert law firm.