Few things are more representative of the holiday season than the bell ringers and familiar red shield of the Salvation Army. Ever-present at malls, street corners and inside TTC property, the London-based organization collects cash for its Christian outreach services benefiting 30 million people in Canada and abroad. The Sally Ann is one of the world’s largest, richest and most visible philanthropic agencies, recently providing significant relief for victims of Hurricane Rita and support for workers and families of September 11.
Behind the cheery smile of the bell ringer and the mission’s history of good works lies one of its most disturbing policies: the Salvation Army not only doesn’t want you in the organization if you are openly queer, but its policies and publications actively campaign against equal rights for LGBTs.
The Canadian branch of the Army is quick to play-up a boilerplate response stating that they offer domestic partner benefits, but don’t mention it was only after a 1999 law forced them to. In the early nineties, The Salvation Army fought a Canadian Human Rights Commission declaration ruling that same-sex partners actually constituted a family. The evangelical organization has also been crystal clear in its opposition to gay marriage legislation, urging citizens to lobby MPs against the legislation under the belief that homosexuality is a controllable sin.
The Sally Ann is happy to accept donations from the LGBT community, however; they are still mandated to “love the sinner,” and that includes the sinner’s money. Press releases from the Canadian office state that the Army does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation in the delivery of its services” (italics mine), but that living according to God’s will requires “chastity outside of heterosexual marriage” and that any alternative is a sin that requires ultimate accountability to God.
The Salvation Army’s Canadian website also states their positions on other controversial issues, dubbing certain forms of in-vitro and artificial fertilization “clearly immoral,” calling pornography an “attack” against God’s design, and claiming that a family is ideally “rooted in the biblical concept of a marriage covenant of one man, one woman.” [Click here for a PDF of the Salvation Army’s position statements]
South of the border, where equal rights legislation isn’t particularly well-defined, the picture is bleaker. In Maine, the Army gave up $60,000 in governmental funding so they wouldn’t have to provide domestic partner benefits under the law. In San Francisco, it turned-down $3.5 million rather than comply with an order to offer benefits. The Army bans openly gay Officers and non-chaste gay employees (but not volunteers, of course), and unless prohibited by law, reserves the right to discriminate as it applies to “recruitment and hiring, training, promotion, salaries and other compensation, transfers and layoffs or termination” based on its status as a church.
When legislation was proposed in New York, the Salvation Army threatened to close shelters, soup kitchens and social aid agencies rather than comply with same-sex partner benefit laws, potentially turning down $70 million in annual funding from the city.
In 2001, the Salvation Army allegedly tried to make a deal with Karl Rove offering support for George Bush’s faith-based initiatives in return for an exemption in benefits and hiring requirements prohibiting discrimination against gays. After deciding to offer health benefits to domestic partners in thirteen U.S. states in 2001 (known as the Western Territory), officials rescinded the benefits after a backlash from the evangelical Christian community. Upon revoking the benefits, the Salvation Army’s media director stated, “We now confirm adherence to biblical principles.”
The Salvation Army runs about a hundred social services projects in Toronto and receives a large share of tax dollars from the City, as well as millions in funding from the Province and federal government to operate their services in the GTA.
Now, obviously, opposition to domestic partnership rights and same-sex anti-discrimination policy is no surprise for an evangelical Christian organization that seeks for the “transformation of the world” to Christ’s message, and the Salvation Army should undoubtedly have the right to operate based on their religious convictions. Still, the decisions the Army makes arrive with social consequences that must be held to scrutiny.
The question is whether or not the great work the Salvation Army does outweighs its policies toward the people it both helps and employs, and whether a religious organization that implements certain policies deserves governmental funding. The answer is probably yes.
Nevertheless, The Salvation Army gains much of their donations from people who are oblivious to how that dollar is sometimes spent. Many Toronto employers will donate thousands to the Sally Ann this season. It’s a choice in which most employees don’t have a say, but a statement can be made at the little red kettle. There are lots of other worthwhile charitable organizations — including Christian ones — that have more enlightened, less judgmental philosophies. If you find the Salvation Army’s policies on partner benefits and employment rights abhorrent, choose to send that dollar somewhere else.
The Salvation Army does not use governmental dollars to pay for its lobbying practices, though each branch is allowed to direct privately-raised and donated money however they wish. The Army’s Canada-Bermuda division boasts more than $1 billion in assets. In Toronto, The Salvation Army also operates Scarborough Grace Hospital and Toronto Grace Hospital, the latter which was the location of Allan King’s brilliant, gut-wrenching documentary Dying At Grace and includes Councillor Kyle Rae on its Board of Trustees.