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Charity Reopens Bible, and Questions Follow

Charity Reopens Bible, and Questions Follow

Author: Daniel J. Wakin
Publication: The New York Times
Date: February 2, 2004

The Salvation Army of Greater New York, long known for its network of thrift shops and shelters, has begun an effort to reassert its evangelical roots, stressing to lay employees that the Army's core mission is not just social services but also spreading the Gospel.

The New York division's new leaders have ordered that job descriptions now state the mission clearly. They have reminded employees who deal with children that they must fill out a form promising to follow the Army's religious mission in working with them. The form also asks those employees to describe their church affiliations.

"Periodically, we have to kind of reclaim the ecclesiastical turf, if you will," said Col. Paul M. Kelly, a former New York division commander who was brought in as a consultant last year to assess its operations.

The effort has stirred a mini-rebellion among some longtime employees who resent what they see as an intrusion on their privacy and the potential for religious discrimination. Such demands for religious loyalty, they say, breach the wall between church and state because the division accepts $70 million in state and city funds for its programs.

"We've been told that things are changing, that they've come to whip us into shape, and they want us to become more like the Army," said one social worker in a Salvation Army foster care program who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. "Everyone's really freaked out." Robert Gutheil, a former official with an Army social service program, said the New York division was considered an anomaly within the national Army for the lack of emphasis of religion in its programs.

One high-ranking administrator, in a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said a Salvation Army official said during a meeting that any staff member who refused to sign revised job descriptions proclaiming the church's mission would be fired. And a former human resources executive said a Salvation Army official asked about religious affiliations of people who worked for her and whether several of them were gay.

Catholic Charities, the UJA-Federation of New York and the Evangelical Lutheran Church's local synod all said they do not require social service employees to reveal religious affiliations or commit themselves to a religious mission.

The Salvation Army's New York division leaders would not comment on the specific charges, but denied that their policies are new or even out of the ordinary for a religious institution. Officials acknowledged, however, that they had begun efforts to reinforce the organization's religious identity among employees as part of a general effort to tell the world about the group's mission.

The Army's charitable role was in full focus last week when the national headquarters announced it had received a bequest of $1.5 billion to build and endow 25 or 30 community centers around the country, each of which will contain a place of worship. The bequest came from Joan B. Kroc, the wife of the McDonald's chain founder, who died in October.

Local Army officials said it was far too early to say how the money would affect operations, but national officials have said the centers will be used for educational and spiritual purposes, not for social services.

Best known for the thrift shops and red kettles that help support its network of services for the poor and homeless, the Salvation Army is first and foremost a worldwide evangelical church, according to the New York division's second in command, Maj. Guy D. Klemanski.

"Everything that we do is related to our ministry, and is in fact our ministry," he said in an interview. "Do we require our employees to believe in Jesus Christ and administer the doctrines and tenets of the Salvation Army? Not unless we hire them for a specific ministry."

The tension between the social and spiritual sides of the Army on display in New York have occurred in Salvation Army divisions elsewhere in the nation, officials said. Major Klemanski said the questionnaire asking about church affiliation has been in effect nationwide since 1993, although it was not always adhered to in the New York division and was re-emphasized last fall. The church questions were to help with background checks, he said, adding that many people in the New York division did not seem to be aware of the mission.

Major Klemanski said it was only natural that the Salvation Army expects general support from its employees for its mission.

"Why would you go to McDonald's and tell everybody to go to Burger King?" he asked. "Why would any one want to go to work for the Salvation Army if they are not supportive of us?"

The major said he and the New York commander, Lt. Col. Nestor Nuesch, arrived in their posts in July with a desire to remind employees and the public of the Army's religious function. They would have done the same anywhere, he said. "It's fresh leadership."

Their arrival came on the heels of a reorganization plan by Col. Kelly that was circulated last spring. In it, Col. Kelly urged that more Salvation Army members be recruited for jobs. "The Army's 'Christian perspective' is rarely emphasized," he said.

The church and its programs are happily growing, he said, "but what appears to be happening is a widening gap between the ecclesiastical Salvation Army and the social service component."

He praised a human resources executive for ordering a Muslim employee to remove "various Muslim artifacts" from one center. His report also questioned whether it was a good idea to have hired a human resources director for the Army's adult services agency "who represents an Eastern religion," apparently Buddhism or Hinduism.

The clash between the group's religious and social service missions goes to the heart of President Bush's effort to make it easier for churches to obtain federal money for so-called faith-based social programs, a debate in which the Salvation Army has been central.

The group has lobbied the White House to allow exemptions from gay discrimination laws, and in New York, has argued that its hiring policies fall well within the terms of contracts with the city, the city's human rights law and a 1980 executive order.

Opponents sharply disagree. "It's governmental monies to spread the mission of Christ," said Martin Garbus, a First Amendment lawyer who is representing at least a dozen Army employees who are upset by the religious policy and fear retaliation. "The government shouldn't support Pat Robertson, it shouldn't support the Catholic Church, it shouldn't support Jewish synagogues."

The New York Civil Liberties Union asked the city and state comptrollers two weeks ago to audit the New York branch. Lawyers for the group say the New York division may be violating city and state contracts prohibiting religious discrimination.

The city comptroller, William G. Thompson, has passed the complaint on to the New York City Human Rights Commission, and the office of the state comptroller, Alan G. Hevesi, said it was studying the case.

Lawyers for the employees said a lawsuit could be filed this week.

"This is an agency acting on behalf of a government providing government services," said Donna Lieberman, the civil liberties union director. "It cannot be in the business of promoting religion and discriminating against its employees based on religion."

Religious institutions are exempt from religious anti-discrimination laws, but not for employees working in government-funded programs, the civil liberties union argues. The Bush administration favors allowing religious institutions to consider religion in hiring people who work for their government-funded programs.

The Army, which operates in 109 countries, was founded in London in the 19th century by a Methodist minister, who patterned its structure and terminology after the military. Adherents undergo training before being "commissioned," or ordained, as "officers," the equivalent of ministers. Army doctrine holds that the Bible is truthful revelation and salvation depends on obedience to Christ.

Nationwide, the Army has 46,000 employees, a budget of $2.5 billion and a reputation for being efficiently administered.

Some 1,700 employees work in the Greater New York Division's social service agencies, which have a budget of $120 million a year, about 60 percent from government sources, the division said. The agencies operate more than 60 group homes, foster care, treatment programs, H.I.V. services, shelters and the like. The New York division, which covers New York City, Long Island and seven counties north of the city, said it touches the lives of 5 million people a year.

A few supervisors refused to hand out the forms that included questions on church affiliations. Some workers feared losing their jobs if they did not sign. They included Jews, Muslims and Hindus, gays and lesbians, atheists and even a lapsed Salvation Army member, employees said.

The civil liberties union has also condemned job descriptions calling for applicants to support "the mission" of the Salvation Army, which is listed on job postings and calls on new hires to "preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His Name without discrimination."

The associate executive director of the children's agency, Anne Lown, who is Jewish, filed the E.E.O.C. complaint, according to the New York Nonprofit Press, which reported the dispute last month. Ms. Lown, now associate director, would not respond to questions about the complaint.

Mr. Gutheil, the executive director of the children's division, said in a Sept. 26 memo to his superiors that the church-affiliation form would have an "enormously chilling effect" on hiring good applicants. He said it was bound to be challenged in court, bringing bad publicity and hurting donations.

"Finally, whatever the legality and whatever the practical implications, this is just plain offensive to many of us who share the Gospel faith of the Salvation Army," wrote Mr. Gutheil, an Episcopalian. "This is a city that thrives on its diversity. Our workplace should reflect that."

Within weeks, Mr. Gutheil had left the Army after more than 20 years. On Tuesday, he said a confidentiality agreement that was part of a severance agreement prevented him from discussing his departure. But he said the dispute contributed to it.

"It was an important stand to take," he said. "I'm sorry I'm not at liberty to say more about it."
 


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