The Bush administration is working with the nation's largest charity, the Salvation Army, to make it easier for government-funded religious groups to practice hiring discrimination against gay people, according to an internal Salvation Army document.
The White House has made a "firm commitment" to the Salvation Army to issue a regulation protecting such charities from state and city efforts to prevent discrimination against gays in hiring and domestic-partner benefits, according to the Salvation Army report. The Salvation Army, in turn, has agreed to use its clout to promote the administration's "faith-based" social services initiative, which seeks to direct more government funds to religious charities.
The document offers a rare glimpse into the private dealings of the Bush White House, and it suggests President Bush is willing to achieve through regulation ends too controversial to survive the legislative process. It also underscores the close allegiance between the administration and conservative groups.
The matter stems from a national debate spurred by an increasing number of local jurisdictions that have adopted laws requiring religious groups such as the Salvation Army to adhere to laws barring discrimination against gays in hiring, job promotion and benefits. What the administration is suggesting, according to the document, is a federal regulation that would forbid states and localities from barring such discrimination when administering programs with federal funds.
The Salvation Army, a Christian social services organization with an extensive network of facilities to feed, clothe and shelter the poor, would not be affected much in the short term by the president's proposal on faith-based services. It already receives nearly $300 million a year in government money. But the report indicates the administration is eager to use the Salvation Army's clout to pass the legislation, offering the charity something it wants in return.
"It is important that The Army's support for the White House's activities occur simultaneously with efforts to achieve The Army's objectives," said the document, which was obtained by The Washington Post. "The White House has already said that they are committed to move on The Army's objectives when the legislation carrying the charitable choice provisions passes the House of Representatives."
The White House said yesterday that the organization's claim of a "firm commitment" overstated the case. "This is an issue that was brought to our attention, but no such commitment has been made," White House spokeswoman Anne Womack said.
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer added that faith-based groups already have the power under federal law to discriminate against gays in hiring. It is state and local laws that try to impose on groups to include gays in their employment protections.
The report, dated May 1, defines the charity's "objectives" as making sure states and localities can't "impose the category of sexual orientation to the list of anti-discrimination protections" or mandate "equal benefits to domestic partnership" unless religious nonprofits are exempt from such provisions. George Hood, a senior official with the Salvation Army, said the group never discriminates in delivering its services, but on the question of hiring gay employees, "it really begins to chew away at the theological fabric of who we are."
The "charitable choice" provisions, which the Salvation Army is helping the administration to sell, are at the heart of the controversy over Bush's religious charities initiative and raise the fundamental and thorny question of whether religious organizations can keep their long-held exemption from federal anti-discrimination laws when they receive government funds.
Under the 1996 welfare reform law, the charitable choice provision allows religious organizations to compete for federal funding for certain programs without impairing the charities' religious character, as long as the charities don't use federal funds for worship or proselytizing. Bush would extend the charitable choice provisions to other programs.
Under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, religious organizations have an exemption that allows them to discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion. Bush's proposal, as passed recently by the House Judiciary Committee, says religious charities cannot discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age or disability -- but it says nothing about sexual orientation.
The Salvation Army proposed a new regulation, revising an Office of Management and Budget regulation known as "Circular #A-102." The new wording would say agencies cannot award assistance to local or state authorities that require religious charities to "adopt terms or practices for those with religious responsibilities" or to provide employment benefits, if the practices or benefits "are inconsistent with the beliefs and practices" of the charity.
"We suggested the amendment to OMB Circular #A-102 to staff at the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives as one potential solution," says the 79-page Salvation Army document, addressed to the group's national commander and chief secretary. "They agreed that this approach would be a better alternative than the legislative process, which is more time-consuming and more visible."
"I was told last week there would be a change in the [regulatory] language," Theresa Whitfield, a spokeswoman for the Salvation Army, said yesterday.
Hood said the charity has "no formal agreement" with the White House but that the group is backing the legislation primarily to get regulatory action from the administration. "It's the preservation of our employment practices that motivates us to support this," he said, noting that such practices are central to the group's "theological foundation."
The Salvation Army report explicitly links the two aims: "(White House officials) first want to move the charitable choice provisions in the legislation and use the political momentum of this effort to push forward religious exemptions to domestic partnership benefit ordinances and municipal contract clauses that protect against any form of sexual orientation discrimination."
The report also offers an image of the Salvation Army starkly different from that of volunteers ringing bells outside shopping malls at Christmas -- a notion that concerns the charity. "The Salvation Army's role will be a surprise to many in the media," it says, urging efforts to "minimize the possibility of any 'leak' to the media."
Various states and localities have added domestic partner rights and sexual orientation clauses to their anti-discrimination laws -- spurred in part by Tucson's severing of its relationship with the Boy Scouts of America because that group discriminates against gays. In April, the Maryland legislature passed a law making it the 12th state to outlaw discrimination against gays in areas such as employment, housing and public accommodations. "A new trend, which commenced in the City of Tucson, is now designed to eliminate all municipal relationships with organizations that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation in any form," the Salvation Army document says.
The Salvation Army projects spending $88,000 to $110,000 a month in its endeavor to boost Bush's charitable choice effort. It has hired lobbying and strategy concerns to help.
"The Army will step forward during visits by more than 100 divisional command members to Congressional offices, encouraging support for the charitable choice provisions in a prearranged agreement with the White House," the report says.
Although neither the Senate's nor the House's version of the legislation provides the discrimination provisions the Salvation Army seeks, enacting either one, the report says, "could be the strategic springboard for the White House to act on the proposed amendment to OMB Circular #A-102."