The Bells Aren't Ringing

OUT in the cold.

That's the sad plight of the Salvation Army this holiday season as some shopping malls and stores across the country refuse to let the charity set up its red kettles for the needy on their premises. From Boston's upscale Copley Place mall to Cincinnati's Thriftway Food-Drug, from Michigan's Meijer grocery and department store chain to Sears stores nationwide, the word from top officials is a resounding ``Keep out.''

Their reasoning goes like this: If we let one charity in, we'll have to admit other charities as well. Retailers also argue that if they allow bell ringers, they will have to give the same access to labor union groups and even picketers. But has America become so litigious that fear of legal action must negatively affect even a highly respected national charity?

The 129-year-old Salvation Army has long enjoyed a sterling reputation. In studies of charitable organizations, it consistently ranks near the top for keeping administrative costs low and giving a high percentage of the contributions it receives to those for whom they are intended.

Much of the Salvation Army's year-end income stems from what has been called ``impulse giving'' - the spur-of-the-moment reach into a pocket or purse to fish out money for the bell-ringer's kettle. To deny the charity this essential access to people who might not otherwise make a contribution is to deprive impoverished individuals and families of needed food, clothing, and - equally indispensable - toys. By one estimate, the refusal of more than 2,000 stores across the country to allow the Salvation Army on their premises could represent losses up to $20 million.

Christmas is supposed to be a season of generosity overflowing. The Salvation Army's red kettles serve as a symbol of what the holiday season is about - letting go and thinking of others. A Scrooge-like approach on the part of corporate executives blocks that impulse.

What an irony if the sounds of Muzak carols are permitted to float over the mall but the ring of Salvation Army bells is silenced!

It's not too late for a reversal of policy that would allow the spirit of the season to prevail, with retailers inviting bell-ringers in from the cold and granting their customers the chance to give to those who need a gift the most.

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