Army of Believers

All is not well with one of the nation's largest charities.

Eighteen current and former employees of the Salvation Army's social services arm have filed suit against the organization, accusing it of "imposing a religious veil over secular, publicly financed activities like caring for foster children and counseling young people with AIDS," the New York Times reported in late February. "I was harassed to the point where eventually I resigned," Margaret Geissman, a former human resources manager who told the Times that her superior asked for the religions and sexual orientation of her staff. "As a Christian, I deeply resent the use of discriminatory employment practices in the name of Christianity."

The employees -- including senior administrators and caseworkers that are Jewish, Catholic, Protestant and nonreligious -- filed their lawsuit in United States District Court in Manhattan. They're being represented by the New York Civil Liberties Union and by Martin Garbus, a well-known First Amendment lawyer. At a press conference announcing the suit, Garbus pointed out that it strikes at the heart of the president's faith-based initiative and the separation of church and state. Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union added that "It's critical at this stage of the game to put a stop to proselytizing with government money."

According to Reuters, the Salvation Army Greater New York Division receives $89 million a year in taxpayer money, mostly from the state, New York City and Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island. Anne Lown, a plaintiff and an associate director of the Army's children's services agency in New York, said that the charity employs nearly 900 people and provides services for more than 2,000 children.

The Salvation Army is no stranger to controversy revolving around issues related Bush's faith-based initiative. Six months after its unveiling in late January 2001, it was revealed that top-level administration officials had been conducting secret meetings with the Salvation Army to enlist its political and financial support for the then-flagging project. According to the Washington Post's Dana Milbank, the meetings, which included Karl Rove, the president's chief political strategist, and Don Eberly, the then Deputy Director of the newly opened White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, had been going on for several months.

An internal Salvation Army document indicated that in exchange for its support -- which included plans for an Army-sponsored $100,000 public relations campaign -- the charity would receive assurances that any bill passed by Congress would contain a provision allowing religious charities to sidestep state and local anti-discrimination measures barring discriminatory hiring practices on the basis of sexual orientation.

After the Washington Post's story broke, the administration moved into denial mode, the Salvation Army backtracked, and congressional opponents of the initiative were furious. Salvation ArmyGate was one reason Bush's faith-based initiative languished legislatively on Capitol Hill for more than three years.

In retrospect, it appears that the Salvation Army didn't need any special exemption to discriminate against its employees. According to the New York Times, the plaintiffs are charging the Salvation Army's New York division of coercing them into "sign[ing] forms revealing the churches they had attended over the past 10 years, name their ministers and agree to the Army's mission 'to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ.'" Some litigants claimed they were let go "after years of working in secular jobs when they objected to signing the forms. "Others," the Times reported "said the new religious focus violated the social workers' ethics code and could have chilling effect on their work -- for example, preventing them from giving condoms to people infected with H.I.V. or forbidding abortion counseling."

Responding to the suit, the Salvation Army said in a statement that it was "reviewing the issues outlined in the complaint and look forward to responding openly about our work and our employment practices as they relate to The Salvation Army's Mission." The organization pointed out that its "policies and procedures were entirely consistent" with laws governing the employment practices of religious institutions. "In the past," the New York Times reported, "local Salvation Army officials said that the forms had long been in use around the country and that their policies were permitted under terms of contracts with New York City and New York State. No employees are forced to uphold church beliefs unless they are in a position of ministry, they have said."

According to Family News in Focus, an online news service of Dr. James Dobson's Christian-based organization, Focus on the Family, in September, the Salvation Army "began ... to require that employees acknowledge and support the religious mission of the Army -- which is to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Employees in the social services and child-welfare programs are also required to identify their church affiliation, going back a decade."

That date runs parallel to the issuance of a position paper on a concept called "religious hiring rights" by the administration. In "Protecting the Civil Rights and Religious Liberty of Faith-Based Organizations: Why Religious Hiring Rights Must Be Preserved," Team Bush argued that religious organizations receiving government grants retained the right to hire anyone they pleased, based on whatever criteria that is in concert with their organization's religious mission.

Several pieces of legislation with "religious hiring rights" provisions were under consideration by Congress last year including "The School Readiness Act of 2003," H.R. 2210, which allows religious organizations receiving government funds for providing Head Start services to discriminate in their hiring practices; and, the $4 billion Workforce Reinvestment and Adult Education Act -- which passed the House on a 220-204 vote.

In early February, a few days after the Bush White House issued a "Statement of Administration Policy" which called on the House to defeat any amendments to the Community Services Block Grants Act, H.R. 3030, requiring faith-based agencies receiving federal funding to comply with federal civil rights standards and threatening a veto of any bill amended to prohibit discrimination by faith-based agencies funded by American taxpayers, the House defeated three Democratic-sponsored provisions.

Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, indicated that he thought the employee suit was an attempt to ratchet up the fight against federal dollars going to faith-based groups. "There is a caveat written into the law that an organization that is religious cannot lose its religious identity if it accepts federal funding," Cromartie told Family News in Focus.

However, as Arthur Eisenberg, legal director for the New York Civil Liberties Union, pointed out: "For years, The Salvation Army has run these programs very successfully without injecting religion into the workplace. Religion is irrelevant to the success of these programs and it should remain so."

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