The email arrived in my inbox from a local pastor. Several members of her gay-friendly congregation spend a considerable amount of time each December ringing bells for The Salvation Army’s annual kettle fundraiser, she wrote.
While her congregation wants to support the Christian organization and its good works, some of her members heard it discriminates against gay and lesbian people. “We’re all interested — do they actually have any policies on the matter for either their staff or clients?” she asked.
I posed the question to Major Loren E. Carter, coordinator of The Salvation Army of Dane County.
“The Salvation Army follows Jesus’ example of loving and serving all people,” Carter responded by email. “The Salvation Army does not discriminate because of sexual orientation. Our ministry is driven by love.”
Carter pointed me toward the organization’s non-discrimination policy, as well as another Salvation Army document titled, ”LGBT Discrimination: Debunking the Myth.” (LGBT stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.) The document says misinformation and rumors have led people to wrongly believe The Salvation Army does not serve members of the LGBT community.
One photo making the Internet rounds purports to show two bell ringers with a kettle sign reading, “Gays Not Allowed.” The image has been debunked as a hoax. The undoctored photo shows the sign actually says, “Doing the Most Good.”
Still, the organization’s history with the LGBT community has been undeniably complicated. Sometimes, The Salvation Army inflicts harm upon itself. Last year, in a radio interview that spread quickly, a media relations director for a Salvation Army branch in Australia seemed to imply gays should be put to death.
He had been asked by a radio host about the manual used to train Salvation Army members. Several chapters refer to the sin of homosexuality, including a section that cites Romans 1:18-32, which contains an admonition that those who engage in homosexual acts “deserve to die.” Asked whether gay people should die, the official said The Salvation Army aligns itself with the Scriptures and “that’s our belief.”
The Salvation Army strongly denounced the comments. Its “debunking the myth” document refers to the controversy and says that because of the organization’s size and scope, “occasionally one of our millions of employees and volunteers might say or do something that does not reflect our values.”
Until recently, The Salvation Army had a “position statement on homosexuality” posted on its website. Erin Kanter, a national spokeswoman for The Salvation Army, told me the statement was removed because “it is a theological statement not meant for an external audience.”
The position statement can still be found elsewhere. The website for the Human Rights Campaign quotes disapprovingly from it: “Scripture forbids sexual intimacy between members of the same sex. The Salvation Army believes, therefore, that Christians whose sexual orientation is primarily or exclusively same-sex are called upon to embrace celibacy as a way of life.”
In a guest column for the Washington Times last year, William Roberts, national commander for The Salvation Army at the time, drew a clear distinction between the organization’s theology and its approach to employees and clients. He said the organization employs more than 64,000 people in the U.S. from all backgrounds and “adheres to all relevant employment laws and provides for domestic-partner benefits accordingly.” Only those employees with religious responsibilities, such as the 3,500 Salvation Army officers who are ordained ministers, must hold theological beliefs consistent with the organization, he wrote.
“We firmly oppose the vilification and mistreatment of any member of the LGBT community, just as we oppose the mistreatment of anyone,” Roberts wrote. Vilifying The Salvation Army only hurts its charity efforts, he said. In Dane County, those efforts include providing shelter for homeless families and single women.
The group Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) — not known for bomb-throwing — called for a boycott of the kettle campaign in 2001. In a more recent statement, it said “ultimately, the decision of whether or not to donate to the organization must be determined on a personal level.”