HOUSTON — THE Salvation Army may be in need of some salvation.
In one of those peculiar free-speech versus free-giving clashes that only seems to happen at Christmas, the charity is being blocked from fund-raising inside many shopping malls across the country.
Retail executives are concerned about lawsuits from other groups seeking access to stores. Some won't even allow the bell ringers on their property.
"It's been a policy here at Willowbrook Mall because of free-speech laws," says Walt Plonski, general manager of the Houston mall, which does not allow Salvation Army volunteers on the property. "If you let one group, you have to let every single group. We would not be able to control the use of our property."
That's the main line of reasoning that has led shopping malls to shut their doors to Salvation Army volunteers - and it could cost the charity dearly. Nationally, the Salvation Army collects about a quarter of its budget from red kettles at Christmas.
This year, the Salvation Army - one of the few enduring symbols for what the Christmas season is really about - is concerned that fewer bell ringers in less strategic places will lead to less money in the collection pot. Across the country:
*The Salvation Army estimates it will lose half a million dollars because of being closed out of stores in Michigan - $15,000 from one suburban Detroit mall alone.
*The Grand Teton Mall in Idaho Falls, Idaho, has barred Salvation Army bell ringers from collecting inside. Last Christmas, those volunteers collected some $7,000.
*And in Massachusetts, 63 chain-store operators and mall owners allowed Salvation Army collectors in 1993. This season, only 50 permit bell ringers on their premises.
Some retailers have based their decisions on such grounds as legal liability for accidents that volunteers may encounter, protecting shoppers from inconvenience, and silencing the incessant bell ringing. But most have taken their stance based on a 1992 Supreme Court decision that forbids stores from discriminating against unions. The ruling suggests that if charities are allowed in malls, union organizers must also be given access.
The dispute over the Salvation Army's access to malls has affected its ranks mainly in larger cities - ironically the same locales that most often need the charity to the poor that the 130-year-old organization provides. At the same time the group is restricted, it's also seeing a higher demand for its services and having a harder time drafting volunteers.
But National Salvation Army spokesman Lt. Col. Clarence Harvey says the 6,000-chapter organization is more concerned about its ministry than the money. "The issue is the symbolism of what that kettle represents," says Colonel Harvey. "That kettle is one of the only symbols we have left that it is more blessed to give than to receive. I've come to realize somewhat that the larger the corporations become, the less local interest they have in the welfare of people."
IN appreciation of that, Congressman Peter Hoekstra (R) of Michigan has introduced a bill enabling businesses to allow charitable, civic, or religious organizations to use their property without giving up the right to ban other activities, such as union demonstrations.
The malls and retail stores that ban the Salvation Army don't want to be portrayed as "Grinches," though. They point out that they often make donations to charities or conduct other fund-raisers as an alternative. Baybrook Mall, south of Houston, for example, helped collect $10,000 for local schools last year, says general manager John Pew. "You like to be part of the community, but you do have to pick and choose sometimes," Mr. Pew says.
Another Houston-area mall sponsors a Giving Tree where patrons buy presents for those in need. But presents are not what many poor kids need most, say Salvation Army officials.
"The toys are great ... but when families need heat in February, we go to the Christmas collection," says Jennifer Forrider, a spokeswoman for the Salvation Army in Boston.