Theocracy Watch VII: Season's Warning

With the Democratic victories in the recent midterm elections, I am hopeful that I will have to write considerably fewer Theocracy Watch posts in the near future. This is not to say that the Democrats do not also pander to religion, which they do, but only that they usually show less interest than Republicans in integrating it materially into our government. However, this does not mean that unconstitutional establishments of religion are no longer continuing, and this post will examine one of the more blatant examples.

As December and the holiday season arrive, there are some familiar sights and sounds of the season that become more and more common: the twinkling strands of light hung from the windows of homes and stores; the familiar music of Christmas carols in the air; and, I dare say, the Salvation Army volunteers on the sidewalk, ringing their bells and soliciting charitable donations for their red kettles.

Founded in England in 1865 by Methodist minister William Booth and his wife Catherine, the Salvation Army is today the world’s largest private charitable enterprise, with an annual budget of over $3 billion and operations in dozens of countries. But familiarity can blind us to the obvious, and it is important to recognize that the Salvation Army is not a secular charity. As their name itself shows, they are first and foremost a religious organization. In their mission statement, they identify themselves as “an evangelical part of the universal Christian Church”, and state that their primary purpose – even before aiding the needy – is “to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ”.

Before going further, I should stress that despite their religious affiliation, the Salvation Army has done much good to help the poor and the destitute around the world. I am not objecting to that. What I do object to is the explicit religious discrimination they practice, and more, the government help they receive in doing so.

Each year, the Salvation Army receives tens of millions of dollars of taxpayer money, allocated by the government, to assist them in carrying out their social programs. Until recently, they used that money in a fair and secular way, without regard to religious orientation. However, that no longer appears to be the case. Several years ago, the Salvation Army suddenly began requiring its employees to fill out forms in which they list which church they are currently attending and which churches they have attended during the past ten years (“not applicable” was apparently not provided as an option), authorize their religious leaders to reveal private communications to the Salvation Army, and pledge to uphold the evangelical Christian mission of the group. Also, in 2003, the Salvation Army rescinded a policy statement which had previously guaranteed equal employment without regard to religious beliefs. Numerous employees of long standing have alleged that, because they objected to these new requirements, they were either fired or harassed until they quit.

In 2004, the ACLU filed a complaint, which has been working its way through the courts (see also here). In October 2005, a disappointing and badly reasoned decision held that the Salvation Army, despite receiving public funds, was exempt from civil rights laws that bar religious discrimination (although other aspects of the lawsuit remain in contention). I remain hopeful that this clearly erroneous decision will be appealed, though I have heard no further news as of yet. The rule is, or at least should be, simple and clear: If any private group accepts government funding, they should be required to abide by all non-discrimination and neutrality laws that pertain to government employees. Anything less is government favoritism of religion in violation of the Constitution.

There are other strikes against the Salvation Army’s hiring policy as well, such as a 2001 sub rosa agreement in which the Bush administration promised to help exempt the Salvation Army from state and local laws preventing discrimination against homosexuals, if the Army would agree to promote the Bush administration’s “faith-based” initiative in return (source). The internal Salvation Army document discussing this agreement, as reported by the Washington Post, said that the Army’s role in this deal would probably come as “a surprise” to many and urged its employees to keep the deal secret from the media.

Due to these disturbing reports, I believe that atheists should cease any and all support they may be giving to the Salvation Army. Their primary goal is not to provide assistance to the needy, but to advance a certain specific set of religious aims, and we should respond accordingly. Despite record-setting donations last year, the Army is apparently having trouble with staffing and is seeing declining membership. The possibility of a connection with its newly discriminatory hiring policies is hard to ignore.

Other posts in this series:

Some Thoughts on Trigger Warnings
Weekend Coffee: March 28
#BlackLivesMatter in Baltimore
No, Belief in Satan Doesn't Make Us Moral
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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