By David Waters
Churches and other faith-based organizations that receive government funds, beware. In an agreement that will be enforced by a federal court, government agencies in New York have agreed to monitor the Salvation Army to ensure that it doesn’t impose religion on the people its serves through its tax-funded social services.
The agreement just effects the Salvation Army’s social work in New York, but it’s more than a cautionary tale for religious groups in this era of government-backed faith-based initiatives. “With this settlement, government is watching out,” co-counsel Deborah Karpatkin of the N.Y. Civil Liberties Union said in a statement. “It will not fund religious organizations to proselytize to recipients of government-funded social services.”
The agreement highlights one of the issues that is vexing President Obama’s faith advisory council: Should the government require houses of worship to form separate, secular nonprofit corporations to receive tax dollars to pay for social services? Obama’s council was unable to reach consensus, voting 13-12 that there should be such a requirement.
(UPDATE: Closer monitoring of faith-based funds is one of the recommendations of Obama’s faith advisory council: “To guard against inappropriate uses of Federal funds, the Government must monitor and enforce the constitutional, statutory, and regulatory standards that follow social service funds.” Read the full report here.)
The agreement also raises interesting questions about what it means to be the church.
Using government funds seems to prohibit a church from talking about Jesus, or passing out written religious messages, but does it prevent anyone connected with a government-backed faith-based group from acting like Jesus?
The Salvation Army is a Christian denomination whose stated mission is “to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination.” In its efforts to meet those human needs, the Army operates nonprofit agencies, including Social Services for Children in New York. About 95 percent of SSC’s $50 million budget comes from government funds to provide social services for more than 2,000 children in New York.
In 2003, the church announced a “Reorganization Plan” to ensure that “a reasonable number of Salvationists along with other Christians (will be employed at SSC) because the Army is not a social agency but a Christian movement with a social service program.”
Good for the church. It shouldn’t subject its mission to government approval, no matter how much money the government offers. To reemphasize its work as a church, the Army began requiring SSC workers to disclose their church affiliation and church attendance, and to sign an endorsement of the Salvation Army’s mission to “preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Turns out, that wasn’t a problem for the federal court. Federal and state laws “permit religious organizations to advance their religious missions by discriminating on the basis of religion in employment,” U.S. Dist. Judge Sidney H. Stein ruled in 2005 after the NYCLU sued The Salvation Army for religious discrimination.
But the NYCLU also claimed that the Army was violating the Constitution by imposing religion on children who were being served with tax dollars, not church dollars. According to court documents, the Salvation Army’s practices included a confirmation-like ceremony with prayers and Bibles for 9-year-olds in its government-funded foster care program.
The judge didn’t approve of that. “Government aid to religious organizations may not be diverted to religious purposes,” the judge wrote.
So now the Salvation Army has to sublimate its religious purpose to fulfill its religious purpose. Or does it? Aren’t there ways to “preach the gospel” and “meet human needs” without proselytizing? To act like Jesus rather than talk about him?