c. 2001 Religion News Service

Gay rights activists are stuffing fake $3 and $5 billsinto the Salvation Army's red kettles this holiday season, protestingits denial of health benefits to gay partners of its employees.

The protests have been scattered so far. But officials at theSalvation Army--which takes in more donations than any other charityin the country--worry that they will mushroom after the holidays,making the organization, like the Boy Scouts of America, a symbol in thedivisive battle over gay rights.

"Just wait, it's going to come," said Salvation Army CommissionerJoe Noland, commander of the eastern territory and one of five membersof the Army's national policymaking team.

Gay rights groups have hinted that a broad-based, national campaignmay be unleashed when the timing is right. They have been reluctant togo on the offensive while bombs drop in Afghanistan and amid publicdesire for domestic unity in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

But "when all of this subsides, and it will, this issue with theSalvation Army will still be there and there will be a reaction," saidDavid Smith, a spokesman for the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign,a leading gay rights group. "The same thing will happen to them thathappened to the Boy Scouts."

The Boy Scouts ban gays, and in communities across the country,pressure has been put on the United Way, a major source of scoutfunding, to withhold money.

The current hullabaloo arises from the Salvation Army's decision--and later reversal of that decision--to permit its 13-state westernterritory to offer benefits to "legally domiciled adults," a broad termthat could include gay partners of employees. At a time when the Bushadministration is pushing government funding for faith-based groups, itillustrates the predicament some face in accepting money withstipulations that run contrary to religious beliefs.

"What can seem like a relatively insignificant decision--even awell-intentioned one--can five, 10 or 15 years down the line be oneof historical significance. And this decision has that kind ofimportance," said retired Salvation Army national commander RobertWatson, referring to the insurance benefit.

"Is this homophobic? Some people might call it that. Those who judgeus might use some of those terms.

"But if we change who we are to accommodate our culture or thepressures of those who would try to reshape us, we aren't who we say weare."

The Salvation Army, begun in London in 1865, says it is anevangelical Christian organization that serves the needy withoutdiscrimination.

But it also maintains that sex outside marriage is sinful. And in1998, the Army gave up $3.5 million from San Francisco rather thancomply with a 1996 requirement that organizations doing business withthe city provide the same benefits to same-sex domestic partners as tomarried couples.

In late October, the Salvation Army's national policymaking team,the Commissioners Conference, decided to give each regional territoryautonomy in making benefits decisions.

The western territory announced it would extend benefits to legallydomiciled adults. San Francisco officials applauded.

But there was outrage on another front: Psychologist and evangelicalradio kingpin James Dobson, whose "Focus on the Family" is broadcast bymore than 3,000 stations every weekday, urged listeners to protest thedecision, "because it will lead to similar decisions and compromises" atother Christian institutions.

In an interview, Focus on the Family spokesman Paul Hetrick citedHarvard University and the YMCA as two organizations that began with aChristian mission but gradually lost their religious identity. He saidthe Salvation Army's insurance decision could put it on the same road.

The Army was flooded with complaints--from donors and from membersof the Salvation Army denomination, which is kept financially separatefrom the charity. Watson, the former national commander and author of"The Most Effective Organization in the U.S.," was among the influentialcritics.

"Let's swallow hard," Noland, the eastern territory commander,recalled telling his fellow commissioners. "Let's take a deep breath andmake this thing right."

In mid-November, the decision was rescinded. "We deeply regret theperception that the Commissioners Conference surrendered any biblicalprinciples in making the original decision," the charity said in astatement.

While that satisfied the Army's evangelical constituency, otherswere outraged.

"They are violating their own anti-discrimination language in theirown mission statement and they're doing it absolutely in response topressure from conservative religious groups," said Roey Thorpe,executive director of Basic Rights Oregon, based in Portland.