Until 2001, for most people, mention of the Salvation Army conjured up warm images of volunteers ringing bells during the winter holidays and workers dispensing clothing and food to the poor. But during the past year the group became the latest venerated all-American institution to find itself at the center of the fight for gay rights. And on this issue, the evangelical charitable organization appeared far from benevolent.
"We learned a lot about these kinds of `mom and apple pie' nonprofits [in 2001]," says Harold S. Levine, a New York consultant who has worked with numerous gay and mainstream charities. "We've learned that a number of organizations, including the Salvation Army, are glad to take our money but actively discriminate against us."
It was a lesson already known to gay activists in San Francisco, where the organization had given up a $3.5 million contract in 1998 rather than comply with a law requiring city-funded groups to provide domestic-partner benefits for employees. It wasn't until July, however, that the Salvation Army's steadfastly antigay policies first got national exposure, when a memo surfaced that outlined a secret deal with the White House to give the organization--and other religious nonprofits--immunity from state and local laws banning antigay discrimination or mandating "equal benefits to domestic partnership." In exchange, the Salvation Army promised lobbying support for President George Bush's proposed faith-based initiative, which would funnel federal funds to religious charities. Once the memo was made public, the White House quickly backpedaled and said it would not consider the exemption.
Controversy over the secret deal dogged the Salvation Army throughout the summer, but the charity's highly visible mobilization in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks gave the organization a virtual clean slate. Scores of Salvation Army workers and volunteers joined the rescue and cleanup efforts at New York City's ground zero and the other crash sites, so the charity appeared at the crest of the wave of national unity that followed the attacks. Then in early November the organization's Western territory, which represents 13 states, opted to extend health care benefits to the partners of its unmarried employees, including gays and lesbians, which would have put the San Francisco fight behind it.
But for fight-wing backers of the charity, the atmosphere of national unity had its limits. Conservative groups Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, and others pressured the Salvation Army's national leaders to rescind the renegade Western territory's domestic-partner benefits. In striking down the benefits policy only 11 days after it was announced, the national office claimed it was merely responding to "internal and external constituencies" and confirming "adherence to biblical principles concerning marriage and the family," according to spokeswoman Theresa Whitfield. "Our policy is not and never has been designed to target gays," she insisted.
The renewed tension between the Salvation Army's expressions of charity and its determination to discriminate against gay people echoes activists' vocal objections earlier in 2001 to Bush's faith-based initiative. Although the Salvation Army's Web site claims that its services are offered "to meet human needs in [Jesus'] name without discrimination," Lorri Jean, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, says she has had difficulty arranging a meeting with the charity's leaders to discuss her concerns. …