As the last holiday shoppers left downtown on Christmas Eve, so did the Salvation Army bell-ringers. The 18 red kettles in downtown Seattle and Queen Anne netted about $56,000 this year, down a few thousand dollars from last year. But the Salvation Army collected something other than dollars and coins this year--it also received hundreds of fake $3 bills.

These fake bills are the work of Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), a national group that launched a protest campaign this holiday season. PFLAG encouraged supporters to drop fake bills in red kettles around the United States, with a message that the bogus money was a substitute for a real donation--until the Salvation Army changes its policy and begins offering domestic-partner health-care benefits to its gay and lesbian employees.

In November, the Western Territory of the Salvation Army (which includes Washington and 12 other states) decided to extend health-care benefits to one other person in each employee's household. That other person could be a gay or straight domestic partner, a grandparent, or even a roommate. Two weeks later, the national leadership of the Salvation Army--a Christian organization--rescinded an earlier decision to let the individual territories make benefit decisions, and reversed the Western Territory's new policy.

That angered PFLAG and other gay-rights groups that saw the policy reversal as discrimination. The $3 bill protest started just in time for the red kettle bell-ringing, which began just before Thanksgiving.

The Seattle division of PFLAG participated in the protest, offering printable copies of the $3 bills on its website. But other leaders in Seattle's gay community disagree with the protest, saying the Salvation Army doesn't discriminate in hiring or services. Plus, they say, the Salvation Army's Western Territory shouldn't be punished: It wanted to extend benefits, it moved to extend them, but it was overruled by the national organization.

State Representative Ed Murray (an openly gay Washington legislator, representing Capitol Hill, downtown, and the U-District) says there is no need for a protest locally. Murray and former Seattle City Council Member Tina Podlodowski have met with the local Salvation Army to discuss the issue.

"If locally they tried to offer domestic-partnership benefits, and if locally they have employee nondiscrimination policies--and they hire gay people--I'm not sure why we are protesting them," Murray says.

Though Podlodowski was not available for comment, the Salvation Army's local spokesperson, Mike Seely, met with her recently. Podlodowski is a board member of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), a national gay-rights group. After meeting with Seely, she sent out a memo to other HRC board members about the issue.

"[Tina] said, 'Continue to advocate for national [Salvation Army] leadership to change its policy, because it's not going to go away,'" Seely says, paraphrasing the memo. "'But at the same time don't withhold support for services, because this is a group that provides services, no questions asked, to a ton of people.'"

Money donated in the holiday red kettles goes back into local programs, Seely says. There is no discrimination when it comes to the services the Salvation Army provides, which range from homeless shelters and meal programs to rental assistance and job training.

"If you try to cut the Salvation Army off at the knees, you're going to hurt a lot of people of all sexualities, of all races, of all genders at a time when they need it most," Seely explains, though he says that PFLAG's protest didn't appear to have a large financial impact. "We've been very low key, because we do recognize that the Salvation Army does good work," says Bruce Butler, president of Seattle's PFLAG. "[But] at some level, the input from local parts of the Salvation Army is going to influence the national Salvation Army."

The Salvation Army plans to meet with local gay leaders in January.