The Salvation Army: Friend or Foe?
What is not in dispute, and never was, is that the Salvation Army is an evangelical Protestant church. Founded in 1865 in London by William Booth and his wife, Catherine, after he broke with the Methodist Reform Church to form his own ministry, the then "East London Christian Mission" focused on the needs of social and religious outcasts of the time - addicts, the poor and prostitutes. Within 10 years, the Army took on military trappings (instead of bishops, deacons, or pastors, the Salvation Army clergy consists of a general, officers and soldiers) and gained its current moniker. There is a Salvation Army flag, a Salvation Army salute, and even a Salvation Army tartan. Dogma is spelled out in 11 "Articles of Faith" to which all "Salvationists" are expected to adhere and follow.
Also undisputed is the Salvation Army’s standing as one of the most venerable charities in the world, providing food and clothing services, assistance for the poor, disaster relief, combating human trafficking and assisting veterans and the elderly. The organization operates in 126 countries, and in the U.S. only the United Way outranks the Army in terms of private support, total revenue, fundraising efficiency and charitable commitment.
The group’s red kettles are ubiquitous during the holidays; its thrift stores, equally ubiquitous, are hit regularly by bargain hunters, hipsters, and even drag queens. By policy, the Salvation Army turns no one in need away.
But what has long been in dispute is the church-charity’s position with the LGBTQ community, and specifically marriage equality. In 2012, Andrew Craibe, an Australian major, made headlines all over the world when he notoriously told queer journalist Serena Ryan all gay people should be put to death. Soon after, reports surfaced claiming LGBTQ employees of the Army were being fired for their orientation.
Danielle Morantez, who is bisexual, worked for the Vermont branch of the charity, and charges she was dismissed soon after she came out to a supervisor.
"[On] Friday, July 20, I raised concerns about sections in the Salvation Army employee handbook relating to sexual orientation and employment discrimination," she writes on Change.org, "and came out as bisexual in the process. On Monday, the Salvation Army fired me and ordered me escorted off the premises. In my exit interview papers they claimed the reason for my termination was because my ’personal beliefs and position do not 100% align with the values of the Salvation Army.’ "
As with most evangelical Christian denominations, the Salvation Army has a history of homophobia wrapped in scriptural basis. In recent months, however, in the face of a growing public backlash and a plethora of online and social media campaigns, the organization has taken pains to highlight its service to the LGBT community.
In November, the Salvation Army announced it provides equal opportunity and equal consideration to all peoples without regard to race, religion, ancestry, national origin, color, creed, sex, age, physical disability, or sexual orientation. Web links to ex-gay ministries have been removed.
"The message we want to get to people is that the Salvation Army does not discriminate," General Ron Busroe, the Army’s National Secretary of Community Relations and Development, told EDGE. "We do not discriminate in hiring, we do not discriminate in the delivery of service."
To further the point, Jennifer Byrd, the Salvation Army’s National Public Relations Director, recently issued the following statement to the media:
"The Salvation Army does not consider homosexual orientation a sin. Please know that we serve anyone who comes to our doors without discrimination."
The Salvation Army has taken a parallel move to remove links from its website to religious ministries providing so-called "ex-gay" conversion therapy, such as Harvest USA and Pure Life Ministries. These links were previously provided as resources under the Salvation Army’s section on dealing with "sexual addictions."
On its website, the Salvation Army now contains an entire section, "Debunking the Myth of LGBT Discrimination," with written and video testaments from both within and without the Army’s ranks about its commitments to a diverse population. Busroe admits past bias, and that at one time the Salvation Army had blatant homophobic elements.
Old Dogma, New Tricks
In response to this cleaned-up image, Sharon Groves, PhD, Director, Religion and Faith Program, at the Human Rights Campaign forwarded EDGE the organization’s most recent rating of the charity, confirming the Salvation Army is far more tolerant that it once was.
In part, the statement reads: "...there is no scriptural support for demeaning or mistreating anyone for reason of his or her sexual orientation. The Salvation Army opposes any such abuse. In keeping with these convictions, the services of the Salvation Army are available to all who qualify, without regard to sexual orientation. The fellowship of Salvation Army worship is open to all sincere seekers of faith in Christ, and membership in The Salvation Army church body is open to all who confess Christ as Savior and who accept and abide by The Salvation Army’s doctrine and discipline."
Furthermore, says Busroe, "The Salvation Army does not discriminate in hiring, and all LGBTQ employees are entitled to benefits just like anybody else."
Serpent in the Garden
But that doesn’t mean the organization is on board with efforts to gain full equality before the law for sexual minorities. A Human Rights Campaign study points out that "a source of tension continues to remain with the Salvation Army’s policy on offering domestic partner benefits only where required by law."
"The issue here" Busroe told EDGE, is that "we stated we do not see sexual orientation as a sin, that is one of the key issues there that we want people to understand. And that is not change from policy; that has always been our view."
That said, however, "We hold to the traditional view of marriage, and sexual relationships within the traditional view of marriage. We believe sex is allowable only between a man and a woman in marriage. This includes where same-sex marriage is allowed."
The members Salvation Army find themselves treading the often-contradictory waters the Bible can create with a church following the laws of behavior dictated in the Old Testament -- a text in which same-sex unions are never mentioned, or even theorized -- running up against the Army’s charitable works following the love-all-serve-all message of the New Testament, with both essentially crashing into modern legal statutes.
The HRC study notes that the United Kingdom’s Salvation Army’s Moral and Social Issues Council continues to "affirm the New Testament standard of marriage, that is, the voluntary and loving union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others."
Unsurprisingly, the HRC and other LGBTQ advocates interpret this as discrimination -- a type of discrimination commonly seen as conservative use scripture to justify homophobia. This stance would not be as damaging, or as prominent, if the Salvation Army were not a charity of its size and reach.
Admitting the Salvation Army’s position on the issue of same-sex marriage drove and continues to drive contributors away, severely straining the charity’s relationship with several municipalities including New York, Portland, Maine and San Francisco, Busroe downplays the Salvation Army’s same-sex marriage position.
"From a cultural perspective," he says, "disagreement’ does not equate to ’discrimination.’ "
It is ultimately up to the donor to decide to what charities to contribute. Several, including the United Way, are socially conservative. For a list of approved charities, the HRC recommends a search of its website, or to contact local LGBTQ centers.