by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associated Editor
The holiday season has long been a time when those who have give to those who do not. Students in schools across the U.S. hold fundraisers and collect food and toys to give a hand-up to the needy in their community. 'Tis the season, after all.
The students at Henry M. Jackson High School (HMJHS) in Everett, Washington are no different. Each year, the Associated Student Body (ASB) commits to a community service project to raise food and funds for the less fortunate families in Snohomish County. Greg Stair, a fine arts teacher at Everett High School and a teacher's union representative serving on the Everett Public Schools District Equity and Access Advisory Council, applauds such students. There's just one problem: Each year, for the past three years, the ASB organization at HMJHS has chosen the Everett branch of the Salvation Army as its beneficiary.
As an open Gay man and the club advisor for his school's Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) he can't seem to stomach the fact that the Salvation Army, which he believes to be a discriminatory organization towards the LGBT community, is allowed into a public school system.
'The Salvation Army has a disturbing policy in regards to the LGBT community,' Stair told Seattle Gay News. 'As the Everett High School GSA advisor I think we need to set a good example for our students. This is not the example I want my students to see.'
Stair bases his views on the Salvation Army's belief statement on homosexuality, which reads, in part, 'Sexual attraction to the same sex is a matter of profound complexity & Scripture forbids sexual intimacy between members of the same sex. The Salvation Army believes, therefore, that Christians whose sexual orientation is primarily or exclusively same-sex are called upon to embrace celibacy as a way of life. There is no scriptural support for same-sex unions as equal to, or as an alternative to, heterosexual marriage.'
In regards to employment or volunteerism with the Salvation Army, the evangelical Christian church states, 'All Salvation Army positions of full-time service, lay leadership, employment, and volunteer service are open to qualified persons, with exceptions dictated only by the religious purposes and moral positions of The Salvation Army.'
'This latter statement would seem to exclude any healthy Gay man or woman who engages in Gay sex because that would be a violation of their moral position,' Stair told SGN. 'This would, to me, mean that the Salvation Army discriminates against Gay people. It seems unreasonable to expect a person to stay celibate their entire life.'
Stair worries that, by mixing a Christian organization with public school students, some students may feel left out or discriminated against. 'If you're an LGBT student at Jackson High School you are forced to either sacrifice your identity to help the needy or not participate,' he said. 'That's not a fair choice.'
The Salvation Army, which has been in existence since 1865, is most visible during the holiday season with over 25,000 volunteers ringing bells and taking cash donations with red buckets throughout the nation. As of 2010 the Salvation Army operates in 122 countries and provides services in 175 different languages. It claims memberships of 16,938 active and 9,190 retired officers, 1,122,326 soldiers, 189,176 adherents, 39,071 corps cadets, 378,009 junior soldiers, around 104,977 other employees and more than 4.5 million volunteers.
So how is it that the Salvation Army ended up doing business with Jackson High School students?
'ASB organizations in schools across Washington State are governed by students,' Everett Public Schools officials told SGN in a December 16 statement. 'Students have leadership positions and make decisions about student-led projects. At HMJHS, an ASB community service project raises food and funds for the Everett branch of the Salvation Army for distribution in the local community for families in need. Students participation in the project is voluntary. No grades are given for participation; participation is not tied to academic requirements.'
In 2008, when Stair first heard about the HMJHS ASB affiliation with the Salvation Army, he contacted the school and the district and explained how the organization was offensive. In 2009, when he learned that the school was still using the Salvation Army for its food drive, he contacted the Superintendent Dr. Gary Cohn and showed him articles on the Salvation Army's anti-Gay stance.
'In 2009, ASB leadership learned of an adult's concerns about the religious stance of the Salvation Army - in particular the Army's position on homosexuality,' school officials told SGN. 'As a result of those concerns, ASB students worked with the high school administration to invite an official of the Everett branch of the Salvation Army to explain this branch's philosophy and beliefs, hiring practices and policy about helping those in need.'
According to school officials, after the meeting, ASB students decided to continue working with the local branch of the Salvation Army.
'The students felt confident this branch is serving the very people the ASB wanted to help,' said officials, 'The students felt this branch's religious beliefs did not hamper ASB's desire to help its school and neighborhood families. Thus, HMJHS ASB students are again conducting a holiday food and fun drive to help families served by the Everett branch of the Salvation Army.'
'I was hurt and offended that the district would insist on using the Salvation Army for a third year,' said Stair. 'In 2010, I sat down with the Assistant Superintendent and showed him the Salvation Army website and gave him specific examples of how they discriminate against Gay people.'
Kathy Lovin, public affairs and communications director for the Salvation Army USA Western Territory, says that the organization does not discriminate. 'The only requirement for service at any Salvation Army facility is need,' she told SGN. 'No one is denied service because of their religious beliefs, sexual orientation, or country of origin.'
Lovin said the Salvation Army's mission statement speaks for itself. Its mission, she said, is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in his name without discrimination.
'The Salvation Army is an equal opportunity employer,' said Lovin. 'Employees are hired based on their skill, talent or experience relative to the job they're seeking. In the case of ministerial positions, the Salvation Army hires people with skill, talent or experience and who are professing Christians.'
As for volunteers, they come from local businesses, schools, churches, and civic groups and more, she said.
'All are welcome to volunteer for the Salvation Army as long as their focus is on joining us to care for people in need and not on promoting their own interests,' said Lovin. 'In Snohomish County, the Salvation Army serves more than 28,000 people a year with Transitional and permanent housing programs for homeless people, community meals that serve 100 persons a night, three evenings a week, a supplemental food bank and so much more.'
'Given their belief statements on homosexuality, it seems odd that the Salvation Army would allow a Gay student to volunteer for them,' said Stair. 'It's important to note, though, that they don't say they would hire a Gay student. Sounds like lip service to me.'
'As a public organization with 26 schools, the district, its staff, parents and students have personal relationships and educational partnerships with many community organizations, some of which are faith-based,' said Everett school district officials. 'The district is bound by law to treat equally all faith-based organizations - whether individual administrators or organizational leadership are sympathetic to or disagree with a particular faith-based organization's philosophy.'
Superintendent Gary Cohn notes, 'We care about everyone involved - the students whose intentions are to help others, the Salvation Army's commitment to serve all, no matter their religious beliefs or sexual orientation, the families depending upon these charitable efforts and those who feel marginalized by the Salvation Army's stance on homosexuality. We are obligated to maintain the religious neutrality of the district and support and respect the rights of all. We are also obligated to provide educational opportunities and discussions for students who will be our nation's future leaders. This district values inclusivity, open conversations and informed decisions. HMJHS students will be meeting with voices on all sides of this question after the first of the year, and we will support them in whatever decision they make as a result of those discussions.'
'I have served on many district diversity groups,' Stair said. 'I have been told numerous times by administration and the district's own trainers that they believe in equality for all, but apparently they mean everybody but 'the Gays'.'
'If this was a group that discriminated against an ethnic minority we would not be having this discussion,' he concluded.
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