A lawsuit brought by a lesbian couple that charges the Salvation Army with discrimination based on sexual orientation could derail efforts by the agency to convince LGBT Americans that it does not discriminate against LGBT employees and clients.
Tamara Lobban, who worked for a women’s shelter that was run by the Salvation Army in the Bronx from 2008 until she was fired in late 2013, and Capriece Bobbitt, who began working at the shelter in 2010 and was still employed there as of December 2015, met on the job and began a relationship in early 2011.
In a highly-detailed, 30-page complaint that was filed in Manhattan Supreme Court in early 2014, the couple charged they were subjected to three years of harassment, anti-lesbian slurs, repeated payroll problems that reduced their pay, and retaliation when they complained to supervisors about what they were enduring.
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The Salvation Army responded with an equally detailed, 28-page answer that laid out what it charged were repeated warnings for lateness, violations of the organization’s dress code, conduct, operating, and anti-gossip policies, and the half dozen trainings it conducted over two years with shelter staff on its “sensitivity/harassment/respect in the workplace” and gossip policies. Those trainings appear to have come in response to the couple’s complaints. Most of the agency’s warnings were directed at Lobban.
Lawyers for the couple did not respond to a request for comment. In a written statement, Major James Betts, the general secretary for the Salvation Army Greater New York Division, said, “By policy, I can’t comment on specific personnel issues, but I can say without hesitation that any and all decisions the Salvation Army makes with regard to employment are based solely on an individual’s job performance and ability to meet the requirements of the job. The Salvation Army remains steadfast in our commitment to serve all without discrimination and with hiring practices that are open to all.”
In 2012, the Salvation Army embarked on a public relations offensive to counter the view that it has an anti-LGBT history. Gay City News found stories about a gay Salvation Army employee, the agency serving Thanksgiving dinner at the LGBTQ Resource Center of North County in Oceanside, California, and exchanges with a blogger that suggest the Salvation Army monitors its coverage and responds when it is accused of being anti-LGBT.
The highest profile story was an interview with the Advocate, the national LGBT magazine, with Lieutenant Colonel Ron Busroe, the Salvation Army’s national spokesperson, which was published two days before Christmas 2015. He told the Advocate that the agency has been “hammered in social media by misinformation, old stories, people misspeaking including internally.”
Every year at Christmas, LGBT activists take to social media and the streets to tell people to not put money in the Salvation Army’s red kettles because the agency is anti-LGBT, and 2015 was no exception to that practice. The problem for the Salvation Army is that it does have a long anti-LGBT history. This latest lawsuit could torpedo the Salvation Army if only because most LGBT people are inclined to think the worst about the agency.
“I think that’s really going to set their public relations campaign back,” said Bil Browning, a journalist and a leading challenger to the Salvation Army, who was not commenting on the merits of the lawsuit. “The Salvation Army has repeatedly tried to discredit all claims that they discriminate against LGBT people.”
The Salvation Army has improved, and there is some evidence of that in the 2014 lawsuit. The Salvation Army was sued by a New York City gay man in 2005 who charged he was fired because he was gay. The agency’s first response was to claim that as a religious organization, it was exempt from the city’s anti-discrimination law. After it lost that argument in court, the case was settled in 2006 for undisclosed terms. The Salvation Army has not asserted that exemption in the Lobban-Bobbitt case.
“They have taken stuff down from their website about ex-gay ministries,” Browning said. “The biggest one is they have literally changed their church doctrine. They now say homosexuality is not a sin.”
The Salvation Army identifies itself as a church, and, as with many churches, it is contending with how to address a modern understanding of homosexuality and transgender matters.
“The Salvation Army is like any modern church,” Browning said. “They are struggling with homosexuality. As they’ve caught up with modern times, they are having to go through internal changes and internal changes are never easy. But they are working it out in our favor.”