c. 2001 Religion News Service

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

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

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

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

But "when all of this subsides, and it will, this issue with the Salvation Army will still be there and there will be a reaction," said David Smith, a spokesman for the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay rights group. "The same thing will happen to them that happened 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 scout funding, to withhold money.

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

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

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

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

The Salvation Army, begun in London in 1865, says it is an evangelical Christian organization that serves the needy without discrimination.

But it also maintains that sex outside marriage is sinful. And in 1998, the Army gave up $3.5 million from San Francisco rather than comply with a 1996 requirement that organizations doing business with the city provide the same benefits to same-sex domestic partners as to married couples.

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

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

But there was outrage on another front: Psychologist and evangelical radio kingpin James Dobson, whose "Focus on the Family" is broadcast by more than 3,000 stations every weekday, urged listeners to protest the decision, "because it will lead to similar decisions and compromises" at other Christian institutions.

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

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

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

In mid-November, the decision was rescinded. "We deeply regret the perception that the Commissioners Conference surrendered any biblical principles in making the original decision," the charity said in a statement.

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

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

Thorpe has encouraged stuffing red kettles with the fake bills, printed off the Internet. One bill says, "When the Salvation Army ends its policy of religious bigotry and discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people then, and only then, will this be a real dollar bill."

The Internet home page of the Washington-based Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbian and Gays also promotes the protests, which it says began with its Genesee County chapter near Flint, Mich.

Meanwhile, the American Family Association of Michigan has promised that for every fake bill found in a kettle, it will donate an equal amount to the Genesee County Salvation Army, up to $1,000. "We've been averaging two, three or four fake bills per night," said Major Ralph Bukiewicz, the Salvation Army's Genesee County commander.

Colonel Tom Jones, a national spokesman for the Salvation Army, said fake bills also have turned up in Detroit, Chicago and Milwaukee. The impact has been insignificant considering that the Salvation Army collected $1.4 billion in donations last year.

"There is something happening out there," Jones said of the scattered protests, "but it appears to be limited.

"At least at this point."

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