Faith-Based Fiasco: Department Of Justice Backs Bias

In 2003, more than a dozen workers at the Salvation Army in New York City filed a lawsuit against the group's new practice of discriminating on the basis of religion. As in many civil rights cases, attorneys with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) civil rights division joined the case. Oddly enough, they joined in support of the Salvation Army instead of the employees accusing the group of discrimination.

The workers are challenging attempts by the Salvation Army to require employees to divulge information about their faiths, including the churches they attend and their religious leaders. This hostility to minority religions was accompanied by a change to the mission statement. All job postings and job descriptions now state that the top goal of the social welfare operation is "to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in his name without discrimination." The previous mission statement was "to empower each person who enters our doors to live with dignity and hope," and contained no religious references, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Protections against discrimination were removed from the handbook and an effort was made to compile a list of homosexual employees.

Instead of denying the charges, the Salvation Army has defended itself as a religious organization. With the help of the DOJ, they are claiming exemption from civil rights laws even though they are heavily funded by tax dollars and some clients are required to use their services by court order.

This case is the latest in a new trend for the DOJ civil rights office. Three years ago, the department launched a new unit aimed at protecting the rights of religious groups and individuals. Some cases, such as defending the right of a Muslim schoolgirl in Oklahoma to wear a traditional head covering are consistent with what average Americans understand religious liberty to mean.

That kind of case, however, is far from the primary focus of the government's new legal team. Eric Treene, formerly of the right-wing Becket Fund, wields tremendous power in selecting which cases will be pursued.

Like the Salvation Army case, many cases are designed to advance the goals of the Religious Right.

The unit has supported the Child Evangelism Fellowship's efforts to start after-school Good New Clubs, investigated a school that prohibited distribution of religious material during school-sponsored holiday parties and threatened a biology professor who required students to accept evolution as a core principle of biology in order to receive letters of recommendation.

Using government lawyers as advocates for the Religious Right corrupts the purpose of the civil rights division. The work of this new division betrays the legacy of the civil rights movement and the founding fathers. Defending the Salvation Army's efforts to use government money to discriminate on the basis of religion does not protect religious liberty; it violates the establishment clause.