Bush, Salvation Army discussing deal to let group avoid hiring gays

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WASHINGTON - The Bush administration is working with the nation's largest charity, the Salvation Army, to make it easier for government-funded religious groups to discriminate against gay people in hiring, 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 laws that prevent discrimination against gays in hiring and domestic-partner benefits, according to the Salvation Army report.

In turn, the Salvation Army has agreed to use its clout, including intensive lobbying of Congress, to promote the administration's faith-based initiative, which seeks to direct more government money to religious charities.

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.

An increasing number of local jurisdictions require religious groups such as the Salvation Army to adhere to laws barring discrimination against gays in hiring, job promotion and benefits. According to the document, the administration is offering a federal regulation that would forbid states and localities from enforcing those anti-discrimination laws when administering federal money for local programs.

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer noted that federal law already gives faith-based groups the power 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, he said.

The 79-page report, obtained by the Washington Post, was addressed to the group's national commander and chief secretary.

Bush's faith-based proposal, which would fund more religious charities that provide social services, would have little short-term financial effect on the Salvation Army, a Christian social-services organization with an extensive network of facilities to feed, clothe and shelter the poor. It already receives nearly $300 million annually 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," the report said. "The White House has already said that they are committed to move on The Army's objectives when the legislation carrying the charitable provisions passes the House of Representatives."

The "Army's objectives," the report says, are to make sure states and localities cannot impose sexual-orientation protections on religious nonprofit groups. The protections include hiring discrimination and equal benefits for domestic partnerships.

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 Salvation Army is asking that an existing Office of Management and Budget regulation - known as Circular A-102 - be revised to say that federal agencies cannot give assistance to localities or states that force religious charities to "adopt terms or practices" that are inconsistent with the charity's beliefs and practices.

"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 Salvation Army document. "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 that 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 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."

The Salvation Army projects spending between $88,000 and $110,000 a month in its effort to boost Bush's faith-based initiative. It has hired various lobbying and strategy concerns to help with the effort.

"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.

While neither the Senate nor the House versions 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."