By Irene Morse
You’ve probably seen the volunteers ringing bells outside stores over the past month, asking shoppers for donations. The Salvation Army is one of the most visible charity organizations in America, especially around Christmas time. But recently, In there has been a lot of hype over The Salvation Army’s record with regard to LGBT issues, and several LGBT organizations have gone so far as to call boycotts and to ask shoppers to withhold their donations. But is withholding donations to charity really the best strategy for protest?
A favorite tactic for such withholding has been printing off pieces of paper, often facsimiles of dollar bills (see below), explaining why one is choosing not to donate to The Salvation Army and placing those into the red Salvation Army kettles instead of actual money. But this rather harsh activism strategy is rubbing a lot of people the wrong way, so many members of the American public, particularly Christians who are also LGBT-friendly, have asked for clarification on the issue.
Here’s my take:
Is The Salvation Army innocent on the issue of discrimination against the LGBT community? Probably not. But if it comes down to either donating to The Salvation Army or not donating to charity at all this Christmas, you shouldn’t hesitate to leave your change with the bell ringers. Especially if they’re wearing Santa suits.
But why? Well, first, some background.
The Salvation Army was founded in London in the mid-1800s by a preacher named William Booth, who believed that traditional churches were doing too little to help the poor. He was soon operating evangelical services in tents for the lowest class of Londoners, many of whom were rejected by traditional churches because of their colored pasts. The Salvation Army has always had conversion to Christianity as one of its primary missions, but it has expanded dramatically since Booth’s time. It now operates in 122 countries, offering shelter, food, church services and drug treatment programs for the homeless.
Much of the over the tension between the LGBT community and the Salvation Army has been purely rhetorical, which is not surprising given the organization’s evangelical background. There has also been a lot of back-pedaling on the part of The Salvation Army. While it is no longer available, the organization has previously posted a “Position Statement” on its website indicating that while the organization does not believe same-sex attraction is inherently a sin, it does maintain that those who experience such attraction should “embrace celibacy as a way of life.” When the organization Truth Wins Out contacted The Salvation Army about several links on their website that provided resources for seeking out reparative therapy, the organization removed the links from its website.
As recently as 2012, Andrew Craibe, the media relations director for Salvation Army’s Australian branch implied in a radio interview that that LGBT people should be put to death. The Salvation Army was quick to distance itself from the comments, arguing that within such a large organization it is impossible to verify that every single employee agrees with the organization’s values. Last year, William Roberts, a previous national commander for The Salvation Army, indicated in a guest column that while the organization may hold certain theological beliefs that some perceive as anti-gay, they treat their employees and clients with full equality regardless of sexual orientation. It seems that The Salvation Army wants to appease its evangelical core, while maintaining a more politically correct outward appearance.
So has the organization ever actually committed an act of discrimination? There are certainly some examples of anti-gay political activism on the part of The Salvation Army. According to George Hood, a spokesman for The Salvation Army, a small percentage of the organization’s donations (about $0.0025 out of every $1) is sent to Washington lobbyists. In 2001 the Washington Post obtained a document indicating that President George W. Bush planned to exempt religious organizations from local anti-discrimination ordinances at the request of The Salvation Army. As soon as the document went public, the administration denied The Salvation Army’s request. Blogger Rebecca Watson has brought attention to the fact that The Salvation Army campaigned against providing information about homosexuality in UK schools. In 1986 in New Zealand the organization collected signatures protesting against a law that would have decriminalized consensual sex between gay men.
In addition to its political activism, there have been some documented instances of actual acts of discrimination against the LGBT community. Interestingly, however, almost all of these have been brought to the public’s attention by LGBT activist Bill Browning of The Bilerico Project. According to Browning, in 2004 when New York City began requiring vendors and charity organizations to adhere to state law forbidding discrimination based on sexual orientation, The Salvation Army threatened to close all its soup kitchens for the homeless in the city. Browning also asserts that The Salvation Army denied shelter to him and his boyfriend during a period of homelessness in Indiana. When a Salvation Army saw Browning’s boyfriend wearing an AIDS activism pin on his jacket, he allegedly told the couple they would have to break up and attend church services in order to stay in the shelter.
The Salvation Army does seem to have a poor track record when it comes to LGBT employees. In 2001 the organization stated that hiring gay employees would “chew away at the theological fabric” of the organization. In the same year the Western Territory branch of the organization approved a plan to offer domestic-partner benefits to LGBT employees, only to later rescind the decision after facing pressure from evangelical organizations such as Focus on the Family and the American Family Association. One final instance of discrimination can be found in the recent firing of Danielle Morantez, a bisexual activist who worked for The Salvation Army until her local chapter was forced to fire her based on a directive from more powerful figures in the organization. Her dismissal was based on The Salvation Army’s employee handbook, which allows the organization to fire an employee whose conduct is “incompatible with the principles of The Salvation Army.” Morantez’s story was publicized through Browning’s blog.
So, the Salvation Army is certainly guilty of handling the gay community in a less-than-savory way. But they have been subjected to a fairly elaborate smear campaign which included a doctored photo and prompted a post on Snopes.com, and they have put out a lot of LGBT-friendly PR material over the past few years in an attempt to clean up their image. In the end, whether you drop money into those red kettles this year depends on whether you take The Salvation Army’s word for it that they do not discriminate or whether you believe the few vocal LGBT bloggers who provide examples of past discrimination. If you’re willing to go the extra mile and find an alternative charity without such a sketchy history, more power to you. But given the charity’s visible status this Christmas and their wide reach, it’s quite possible that this is the only charity many people will even think to donate to. In which case, donate away.