The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) recently obtained a favorable settlement in a decades-old lawsuit against the Salvation Army, which has important implications for the Faith-Based Initiative. This Initiative, started under the Bush Administration, has continued as the Office of Faith-Based and Community Partnerships under the Obama Administration.
New York State pays the Salvation Army over $188 million to provide social services to New York residents of all backgrounds. And taxpayers fund 300 Salvation Army employees to provide these services. The Salvation Army is a church, but prior to 2003 it did not promote its faith or discriminate on the basis of religion in the organization’s government-funded programs. Starting in 2003, however, it sought to require taxpayer-funded employees “to identify their church affiliation and to adhere to the religious mission of The Salvation Army.”
The settlement of the case, entitled Lown v. The Salvation Army (U.S. Dist. Ct. SDNY), bars the Salvation Army from discriminating on the basis of religion against taxpayer-funded employees or beneficiaries of these publicly-funded social services. In 2010, the NYCLU settled the portion of its case against government agencies that had contracts with The Salvation Army.
Standing alone, the settlement is an important civil rights victory, but it has even more significant ramifications for the future direction of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Partnerships. This program requires that religious institutions, which infuse religion into their operations and programs, be eligible for billions of dollars of federal social services contracts and funding.
The Obama Administration has issued significant and meaningful constitutional safeguards against use of taxpayer funds to proselytize or indoctrinate beneficiaries of federally-funded social services. However, despite a 2008 Presidential campaign promise that federally-funded, religious social service providers would not be able to hire or fire for taxpayer-funded jobs on the basis of religion, the Administration has not acted on that promise. Publicly-funded secular and religiously-affiliated social services providers are already prohibited from engaging in such discrimination.
Had the Lown case moved forward, it could have resulted in a troubling interpretation of federal anti-discrimination laws allowing religious organizations to discriminate on the basis of religion for taxpayer-funded jobs. The settlement prevented that harmful possibility and it is a model of what the federal government should be requiring of any religious social service contractor that takes public dollars.