Los Angeles, Nov. 9-(RNS) The Salvation Army's western jurisdiction has said it will extend employee health care benefits to "one legally domiciled adult," which could include gay and lesbian "domestic partners."

The new position reverses the Salvation Army's earlier opposition to domestic partner benefits. The organization lost about $3.5 million in government funds when it decided not to comply with a San Francisco law stipulating that companies doing business with the city must offer the benefits.

The dramatic change was made by the Salvation Army's western corporation, which takes in 13 states, including Alaska and Hawaii. The new policy applies only to the western corporation at present, Lt. Col. Richard Love, divisional commander of the Salvation Army's Golden State Division, said in an interview. One of largest private providers of social services in the nation, the Salvation Army has four "corporations" nationwide.

Salvation Army officials based the shift on what they believe is a realistic view of the American family and see the move as consistent with the organization's evangelical Christian identity. "Our decision is a reflection of the concern we hold for the health of our employees and those closest to them, and is made on the basis of strong ethical and moral reasoning that reflects the dramatic changes in family structure in recent years," said Col. Philip D. Needham in a statement released by the Salvation Army's USA Western Territorial Headquarters in Long Beach, Calif.

"We do not ask people to pass our morality litmus test before we give them help," he noted. "Christian compassion is not conditional. We neutralize our enemies with love," he added. "We do not deny them their needs."

Needham, the chief secretary of the Army's western corporation, insists the decision does not endorse homosexual lifestyles and does not condone same-sex unions. "We hold that same-sex relations (homosexual acts) are contrary to God's intention for the sexual life of human beings," Needham said on the group's Web site. He explained the organization grants benefits "as a right consistent with our policy for all employees, not as a reward for those employees whose personal and domestic lives conform to the pattern of our views on sexuality and marriage."

Earlier this year, the Salvation Army and the White House came under intense criticism for a proposed plan that would have exempted the Salvation Army from local anti-discrimination laws in exchange for its support for President Bush's "faith-based initiative." When the closed-door discussions became public, both sides backed off and the proposal was dropped.


The benefits decision has drawn heated response from other evangelical Christian organizations that believe the Salvation Army has caved in to financial and societal pressures. "Needham's statement reveals that the decision to accommodate homosexual employees is based on cultural considerations, rather than what is right and ethical," said conservative Christian psychologist James Dobson.

"They have compromised their own moral values," said Karen Holgate, director of policy for the Capitol Resource Institute, a Sacramento, Calif.-based family advocacy group with ties to Dobson's Focus on the Family. "While we understand a need for compassion, as expressed by the Salvation Army," Holgate said, "we are still deeply saddened, and we're shocked, at this decision."

Holgate said the Salvation Army's rationale for the change is "deeply flawed" because it claims to be based on ethical reasoning but admits making concessions to society. Scott Lively of the California affiliate of the American Family Association echoed Holgate's concerns. "We are very, very disappointed that the Salvation Army has capitulated to the homosexual pressure," said Lively, who added that he believes the Salvation Army's dependence on government funds influenced the decision. He sees the move as "a betrayal ... of the church and of the pro-family movement."

Lt. Col. Love said the loss of funds after failing to comply with the San Francisco ordinance affected a senior feeding program, drug rehabilitation and the provision of cold-weather shelter. The Salvation Army sought private funds to help make up the loss in revenues. Love is unsure whether the organization will now re-establish contracts with the city.

Love said the Salvation Army had made its original, negative response to the San Francisco ordinance before the organization had time to work through all the issues involved. "The more we got into it," Love explained, "it really wasn't a gay issue, it was a health care issue." An important factor was the complexity of dealing with the approximately 25 HMOs that make up the western corporation's maze of health care providers. "We don't think it's a theological issue," Love said.

Rebecca Isaacs, managing director of the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, praised the Salvation Army move. "It's a terrific decision ... that the Salvation Army is recognizing the relationships, the domestic partners," Isaacs said. "They want to be considered a helping organization and not a discriminatory organization," she added

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