It may strike you as out-of-season that media outlets have been reporting on the Salvation Army this week. After all, the month of February is drawing to a close, D.C.’s 40-plus inches of snow is beginning to melt and winter is waning.
We should have at least 10 months to hold onto our pocket change before next
December rolls around and the volunteers of the Salvation Army are back in the limelight — wearing their red velour Santa hats, ringing those infamous gold
bells and erecting kettles in front of shopping malls to collect seasonal donations.
However, the Salvation Army isn’t just famous for its Christmas drive. The Army is one of the world’s largest providers of social services and financial aid to the needy. It operates year-round as a religious denomination affiliated with evangelical Christianity.
Relying heavily on private donations, and often on tax funding, the Salvation Army is chartered to operate as two entities. A religious arm exists to spread its gospel, funded by private contributions, and a social-services arm frequently seeks public support.
While conceptually such an arrangement would seem to satisfy the constitutional wall of separation between church and state, pragmatically, the Salvation Army has had a difficult time keeping its two arms separated.
In 2004, eighteen employees of the Salvation Army filed suit against its Greater New York division, alleging that they were forced to disclose their personal church affiliations, the frequency of their church attendance and the names of their ministers. Additionally all social workers and other social services providers were required to sign contracts agreeing to “preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The suit also cited an instance in which the Salvation Army funded a “confirmation-like” ceremony at its temple for 9-year-olds. Each child was presented with a Bible as representatives of the Salvation Army prayed.
While the Army never denied the allegations, according to Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, the case got tied up in court as certain claims were dismissed and others would require further adjudication.
This week, a partial settlement was finally announced. The Salvation Army has agreed to ensure that the people it serves are not subjected to unwanted religious proselytism.
“This agreement protects the religious freedom of all New Yorkers who rely on faith-based organizations for crucial government funded social services,” stated Lieberman. “No one should be subject to proselytizing because they need foster care, adoption, child care or HIV services.”
The agreement, approved by a federal Judge, affirms that taxpayer money must not, and may not, be used to support religious indoctrination. Religious organizations must stop proselytizing their beneficiaries when tax funds enter the picture.
The two-year agreement stipulates that every government agency named in the 2004 lawsuit (New York’s Administration for Children’s Services, Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Department of Juvenile Justice, Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, and the Departments of Social Services in Nassau and Suffolk Counties) must adopt auditing procedures and standards of conduct to ensure “that the salvation Army does not force people in need of government-funded services to engage in religious activities, such as worship or religious instruction.”
The NYCLU will also receive regular reports from the aforementioned government agencies detailing the Salvation Army’s compliance with the agreement. The federal courts will maintain jurisdiction over the agreement for two years in order to ensure it will be enforced.
“However well meaning, when religious organizations use government money to administer these services, there is a risk that the services will be tailored to meet religious principles,” explained NYCLU Legal Director Arthur Eisenberg. “Procedures must be put in place to prevent taxpayer money from promoting religion and to prevent religious belief from limiting the services provided by religious organizations.”
I can decide if I want to toss my pocket change into a Salvation Army kettle in December – well aware that my private donation might be used to spread the group’s religious views. If that bothers me, I’m free to keep the change.
I don’t have control like that over my tax dollars. When public funds are used to support the spreading of a sectarian message, the taxpayers’ rights are violated. This settlement corrects an injustice. It’s good news for anyone who believes religious groups should rely on voluntary donations to underwrite their preaching.