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The Right of Religious Groups to Discriminate

 <ahref="http://www.salvationarmy-newyork.org"target="new">The Salvation Army's determination to impose a religious test on its social service employees has brought them a federal lawsuit from the New York Civil Liberties Unionand opened the whole question of the degree to which religious organizations are subject to human rights law, particularly if they are receiving government money to provide services.

Several longtime employees of the Salvation Army are suing because they said that, though they worked on "secular, publicly financed activities like caring for children and counseling young people with AIDS," according to the New York Times , they were "pushed out" when they objected to having to specify the churches they had attended over the last ten years, name their ministers, and agree to the Army's mission to "preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ."

The Salvation Army released a statement saying that its policies and procedures were "entirely consistent" with the laws governing religious institutions in New York. The city's human rights law , like most anti-discrimination statutes, contains a limited religious exemption. New York's clause (§ 8-107-12 Unlawful discriminatory practices) reads as follows: "Religious principles. Nothing contained in this section shall be construed to bar any religious or denominational institution or organization or any organization operated for charitable or educational purposes, which is operated, supervised or controlled by or in connection with a religious organization from limiting employment or sales or rental of housing accommodations or admission to or giving preference to persons of the same religion or denomination or from making such selection as is calculated by such organization to promote the religious principles for which it is established or maintained."

Thus, even though city law forbids discrimination on the basis of sex, the Catholic Church cannot be hauled into court for not ordaining women to the priesthood. The city also prohibits religious discrimination, but all of the students who go to a Muslim school are of that faith and that is not, on its face, an illegal discriminatory practice. But if a secretary at the Mormon Center were to be denied a job on the basis of race, he or she would have a case, even if the organization were not receiving any public money.

When religiously affiliated organizations contract with the city to provide social services--and many do, for tens of millions of dollars--they are subject to more scrutiny under the human rights law. While the majority of the clients of an agency such as Agudath Israel may be of the Jewish faith because of where the service is situated, they would run afoul of the law if they turned away non-Jewish clients in the course of work performed with city funds. There is a Jewish Home and Hospital on the Upper West Side of Manhattan that still has special programs for Jewish residents, but their bulletin board is chock full of events for Christians and other groups. It could not receive the public funds and continue only to serve the Jewish elderly. Its mission is to provide a range of services "in keeping with our Jewish heritage," but most of those served are not themselves Jewish today.

Groups receiving city money must certify that they are in compliance with the city's human rights law, even if the organization is not based in New York City.

The City Council is on the verge of passing an Equal Benefits Bill that will require contractors with the city to provide domestic partner benefits for their employees if they give them spousal benefits. Mayor Bloomberg has raised legal objections to the bill, Intro 137, but no one else has testified against it in its two hearings , the last of which was February 27. The mayor has not said whether he will veto the bill, but it has a veto-proof majority of 38 sponsors in the City Council.

Similar legislation has been in force in San Francisco since 1997, leading to more than 80 percent of the private sector domestic partner benefits in the country because major firms doing business with San Francisco ended up providing the benefits to their employees nationwide.

The Salvation Army in San Francisco dropped their contracts with the city rather than comply with the law, because they believed that recognizing domestic partners compromised their religious teaching against homosexual relations. But the Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco maintained their contracts and complied with the law by allowing their employees to name one other household member on their benefit policies regardless of relationship.

Catholic Charities in New York has yet to say publicly how they will deal with the Equal Benefits Bill, though there are Catholic hospitals already giving domestic partner benefits to their unionized employees under their contract with Local 1199. The Salvation Army here has already indicated that they might forgo their $89 million in city contracts rather than comply. The national church just received a $1.5 billion bequest from Joan Kroc of the McDonald's hamburger fortune that may soften the blow.

Among those testifying for the equal benefits bill was the Right Reverend Catherine Roskam , Suffragan Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York that has been providing domestic partner benefits for years. "I am tired of the assault by the political right on the division between church and state," she said. Quoting George Washington, whose portrait looms over the ornate City Council chamber, "This land is no more Christian than it is Hebrew or Mohammedan."

Andy Humm is a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (34 on Time-Warner; 107 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.

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