Does the Salvation Army have a license to discriminate in Dallas?

Jodielynn Wiley

Jodielynn Wiley

Last month I told you about Jodielynn Wiley, a transgender woman who fled Paris, Texas, amid death threats and ended up at the Salvation Army’s homeless shelter in Dallas.

Thanks to Trans Pride Initiative’s newly launched Shared Housing Project, Wiley has found more permanent accommodations — but not before she apparently suffered some blatant discrimination at the hands of the Salvation Army.

Wiley has filed a discrimination complaint with the city of Dallas’ Fair Housing Office, alleging she was denied access to a transitional housing program run by the Salvation Army because she hasn’t had gender reassignment surgery.

Dallas has an ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations. However, Think Progress notes that an exception to the ordinance allows for housing discrimination “when the dwelling contains common lavatory, kitchen, or similar facilities available for the use of all persons occupying the dwelling.”

Although this exception may come into play, I’d suggest Wiley’s complaint also faces another major obstacle: The Salvation Army is a religious organization, and religious organizations are exempt from Dallas’ nondiscrimination ordinance.

Given all the recent debate about religious freedom versus LGBT equality, I’m shocked that no one has raised this question. If the Salvation Army weren’t a religious organization, cities like Dallas and Austin could have forced its homeless shelters to house people according to their gender identity years ago. After all, this issue is hardly new — and the Salvation Army’s housing policies came under intense scrutiny after trans woman Jennifer Gale died on the streets of Austin in 2008.

Even if the city of Dallas were to decide that the Salvation Army is not a religious organization, the Salvation Army likely would have an affirmative defense against Wiley’s complaint under Texas’ Religious Freedom Restoration Act. And even if a Texas court were to rule that it doesn’t have an affirmative defense, the Salvation Army would face a maximum fine of $500.

I’m not saying Wiley shouldn’t pursue her complaint with the city. If nothing else, it draws much-needed attention to the problem. But ultimately her complaint may also serve to highlight the severe limitations of municipal nondiscrimination ordinances in Texas.

The good news is, one local expert told me Wiley may have a federal claim based on sex discrimination.