The Salvation Army’s bell-ringing foot soldiers are virtually synonymous with the holiday season.
So it’s easy to forget though that the organization doesn’t just appear around Christmas to make everyone feel good. The nearly 150-year-old group, founded by a Methodist minister, has become one of the largest charitable organizations in the United States.
Perhaps for that reason, the Salvation Army is still in the crosshairs of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocates over its policies toward LGBT people.
Queerty, an LGBT news organization, reported this week that it had obtained internal Salvation Army documents in which the charity’s senior leaders outline their internal policies toward LGBT individuals. Queerty argues that the documents expose a contradiction between the organization’s external statements and its internal policies.
The Washington Post has not independently verified the authenticity of the documents, but in a statement to Queerty and to CBS San Francisco, a spokeswoman for the Salvation Army appeared to acknowledge that they were legitimate.
The memos are not particularly scandalous, as they seem to reiterate the Salvation Army’s known stance on LGBT discrimination. The organization’s views on same-sex marriage — specifically, that it won’t perform them and has no legal obligation to do so — is no different than the policies of other denominations. Like, say, the Methodist Church, whose teachings provide a foundation for at least some of the Salvation Army’s religious tenets.
They outline the organization’s policy that being gay is “not a sin” and that sexual orientation is not considered in hiring practices or when Salvation Army services are rendered.
One memo, signed by Commissioner of the Central Territory Paul Seiler, also points out that people who are married are also expected to be treated the same whether they are gay or straight.
Queerty highlights several sections of the memo that provide guidance on performing same sex marriages. Specifically, Seiler notes that the organization’s belief remains that marriage is between one man and one women, and for that reason, will not perform same-sex marriages in Salvation Army facilities. The memo does say that when Salvation Army meeting rooms are rented to outside organizations, they can be used for same-sex wedding receptions.
“Leadership roles in denominational activities such as teaching or holding local officer roles require certain adherence to consistently held spiritual beliefs,” the memo states. “This would apply to any conduct inconsistent with Salvation Army beliefs and would include same-sex sexual relationships.”
Members of the Salvation Army can participate in same-sex marriages provided that they occur outside of Salvation Army facilities and that they are not in uniform.
And non-married people, whether gay or straight, are expected to be celibate. According to Queerty, that means that gay people who are not allowed to marry in certain jurisdictions would be forced to remain celibate.
While these clearly indicate that the Methodist organization has not made a 180-degree turn in its fundamental beliefs on homosexuality and gay marriage, it is not inconsistent with the Salvation Army’s public stance, as Queerty claims.
The Salvation Army went all out in its outreach on LGBT issues after a string of embarrassing incidents, including an Australian official’s 2012 comments that suggested that death as a consequence of being gay is part of the organization’s belief system, and a Vermont employee’s claim that she was fired for being bisexual. The Salvation Army issued an apology for the Australian official’s comments and the organization has tried to emphasize its outreach to LGBT individuals online with a series of glossy video testimonials.
In that outreach, the Salvation Army has clearly emphasized non-discrimination in providing services — the primary focus of the organization — and in hiring. The Salvation Army isn’t going out of its way to highlight its opposition to same-sex marriage, but it has never said that it has abandoned its bedrock religious beliefs about marriage.
The organization’s communications director, Jennifer Byrd, said in a statement to Queerty that the letters only discuss the organization’s theological foundations and clarify its requirement of celibacy for non-married officers, whether they are gay or straight:
The Salvation Army is a religious organization founded in 1865 by a Methodist minister. As such all 3,500 officers that you see wearing a uniform are ordained ministers in The Salvation Army church. The letter you reference addresses the theology of the organization and is used to help guide Salvation Army officers as they navigate the LGBT issue nationwide. While The Salvation Army has a theology of marriage, it also has a theology of service. Please know that the requirement of celibacy for single officers – those who are heterosexual and those who are members of the LGBT community – has always been a policy in The Salvation Army. The Salvation Army serves 30 million people a year without discrimination, as you will see by the information included in the communications packet you have.
We realize our message of service to the LGBT community and our non-discriminatory employment practices have been overlooked, misconstrued or misunderstood in recent years, and our focus the past 12-18 months has been to be address these failings. We have traveled the country extensively meeting with Salvation Army officers and employees to help communicate the mission of The Salvation Army as it relates to the LGBT community and encourage them to reach out to LGBT organizations on a local level as we have on a national level.
That explanation is unlikely to appease the Salvation Army’s critics.
Queerty writer Graham Gremore says that he is “not trying to argue with the Salvation Army’s theological views,” but he doesn’t see how those beliefs can co-exist with an anti-discrimination policy.
“It can believe what it wants to believe,” he writes. “The problem is, these beliefs, which are shared privately among SA insiders, are at direct odds with the organization’s public message, which states, in blanket terms, that it does not discriminate based on sexual orientation.”
That statement is a bit of a mischaracterization of the Salvation Army’s public statements, which are in general carefully crafted to be narrow and focused specifically on employment and service. The group has never said that its ordained officers are no longer required to adhere to faith-based beliefs.
But there are plenty of people who would like that stance to change, not only for the Salvation Army, but also the Methodist Church, which provides the basis for those beliefs, and the Catholic Church, which adheres to a similar belief system.
And as The Post’s Michelle Boorstein noted recently, some gay Christians have chosen to deal with the status quo by being openly gay but remaining celibate, a scenario that does not appear to be prohibited by the Salvation Army’s policies, for example.
The reemergence of this debate, despite the Salvation Army’s full court press on the issue, is just another example of a growing problem for religious organizations as they try to balance their faith-based beliefs with the changing national mores about homosexuality and same-sex marriage.