Monday, February 22, 2010

We'll Help You... If You Believe in Jesus

On February 17, 2010, NYCLU announced its (partial) victory against government agencies in New York in a settlement connected to Lown v. The Salvation Army, brought to court in 2004. New York agencies have agreed to monitor The Salvation Army “to ensure that it does not impose religion on recipients of its government-funded social services.”

Employees became concerned when The Salvation Army began reorganizing in 2003. In that year, it began to dismantle the procedures separating its religious arm and its social services arm. What might happen if, for example, The Salvation Army, requiring its employees of the social services arm to “identify their church affiliation, the frequency of their church attendance, and to sign an endorsement of The Salvation Army’s mission to ‘preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ,’” began to refuse child-care services or HIV services to recipients because they did not also follow the Army’s evangelical Christianity? After all, 95% of budget for the Social Services for Children (one service offered by The Salvation Army) comes from government funding. If The Salvation Army required that to receive help from the SSC one had to join The Salvation Army church or profess a particular belief or something similar, 95% of the money they would be using to do so would be from the government.

The problem here is the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. If government money is going to a faith-based service that proselytizes, isn’t the government endorsing that proselytizing? Isn’t the government, then, in some way establishing that religion? The problem is really a matter of degrees. How far away from the government does the government money have to be before its okay to use to further a particular religious belief? We see this argument again and again in public debate. Can government vouchers be used at parochial schools? More recently, can a government-backed healthcare system pay for abortions? For the voucher programs, the money goes to the parents first, but is that enough of a separation? In the case of The Salvation Army, the degree of separation is every smaller. The money goes directly to The Salvation Army. If The Salvation Army uses that money to proselytize, we’re moving into muddy waters.

The government can “make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” However, time and again, the courts have broadened that understanding. Not only can Congress make no law, no agency in the executive branch can do so. After all, establishment can occur in many ways, including through funding. It only seems appropriate that any agency that operates with money collected from tax-payers, that agency will have to operate with the same restrictions placed on the government.


Claire said...

The allocation of government funds within the Salvation Army is certainly a concern for taxpayers. I think Faith Based initiatives raise similar concerns among taxpayers. It is inevitable that government funding to religiously affiliated organizations will support religion, if only because the organizations will get publicity. The question is when does the support of religion outweigh the benefits to society? If the government places strict regulations on the ways in which religiously affiliated organizations allocate government funding, the organizations may be less likely to accept government funding. However, if the government does not place any restrictions on these organizations then taxpayer dollars may be used to directly support religion. It is a fuzzy line.

Lauren P said...

I agree that the Salvation Army’s requirements were unconstitutional. This is a clear case in which the Establishment Clause has been violated – an institution receiving government funding was discriminating against those who did not share the same religious belief as that of the Salvation Army. In a sense, this requirement was a religious test to receive government aid, which is unconstitutional. Although the government should try not to become involved in religious affairs, I think it is important for the government to ensure that its funds are not being utilized for furthering an institution’s particular religious beliefs. The government should make sure that there is no proselytizing by the Salvation Army because the funds are to be used for a secular purpose only. In summation, I think this case sets an important precedent for faith-based initiatives, or organizations contracted to perform government services.