A few months ago, before legislation to implement President Bush's faith-based initiative made it up the street to Congress, the political storm clouds were gathering. There was consternation over whether religious charities receiving federal money would have to abide by local anti-discrimination laws against homosexuals.
The issue had the potential to pit two core American values - religious freedom and civil rights - against each other. That debate would be so explosive - and the current law is so murky - that most supporters of the faith-based initiative hoped the dispute would go away. Don't ask, don't tell.
Seems that somebody forgot to tell the Salvation Army.
When a Salvation Army memo was leaked to the Washington Post this week, the storm clouds erupted. The memo claimed the Bush administration had agreed to a federal regulation protecting charities from state and city efforts to prevent discrimination against gays in hiring and domestic-partner benefits. In return, the Army would spend hefty sums of money to lobby for the initiative.
Suddenly the issue no one wanted to discuss has threatened to derail one of the administration's highest priorities. Although by late Tuesday the White House had backpedaled, the episode will make it all the more difficult to woo the centrist support Bush needs in Congress and in the country for his faith-based initiative.
Employment discrimination "may be the hottest issue in this whole debate," says Harris Wofford, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania who is co-chairing a group seeking common ground on the faith-based initiative.
At the heart of this week's political imbroglio is the larger, more complex question of how modern religion considers homosexuality.
The Episcopal Church has been racked by theological disputes over ordination of gay clergy and commitment ceremonies for homosexual couples. In May, a suburban church cut its ties with the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, partly over this issue.
Two years ago, some students at the Jewish Theological Seminary - the largest rabbinical institution for Conservative Jews - protested the movement's refusal to ordain gay rabbis. The policy held, but tensions remain within some congregations about gay clergy and acceptance of gay members.
Even in faith communities where the philosophy is clear, there are rumblings. A few maverick Catholic priests and nuns speak out regularly against the Vatican's teaching that homosexual acts are sinful. A small but growing number of gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews are building support networks on the Web. So are devout Muslims who are gay.
These are private communities debating private issues, without public interest. And for years, faith institutions have enjoyed an exemption from civil rights legislation, an exemption that allows them to "discriminate" in hiring based on religious belief.
The difference now is that some of these churches, synagogues and mosques might be seeking federal contracts under the faith-based initiative. And while sexual orientation is not included in federal civil rights law, many states and localities have mandated employment protection for homosexuals.
So the uneasy truce between religious freedom and civil rights is being tested. To me, the solution is obvious: Private religious institutions ought to be left alone - until they seek public funding. Then I think government has every right to outlaw discrimination.
It's a shame the Bush administration tried to accomplish through regulation what it cannot achieve with legislation. It will be a greater shame if the Salvation Army debacle derails a promising initiative.
Jane R. Eisner is a columnist for Philadelphia Inquirer. (c) 2001, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune.