For decades, Salvation Army volunteers, ringing bells as they stand beside bright red kettles, have been a holiday fixture outside stores nationwide. This year, Target stores have...

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WASHINGTON — For decades, Salvation Army volunteers, ringing bells as they stand beside bright red kettles, have been a holiday fixture outside stores nationwide. This year, Target stores have banned them, and religious groups representing millions of evangelical Christians are calling for a boycott to protest the decision.

Target said it is trying to be fair to other charities by ending the exception from its nonsolicitation policy for the Salvation Army.

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The Christian groups said they believe that the Minneapolis-based retailer has bowed to pressure from gay-rights groups that are upset with the Salvation Army’s refusal to offer benefits to employees’ domestic partners.

The boycott “puts us in a weird position,” said Maj. George Hood, a spokesman for the Alexandria, Va.-based Salvation Army.

Although nearly one-tenth of the $90 million the Salvation Army received last year during its holiday appeal came from kettles at Target stores and although it is an evangelical Christian organization, Hood said, it does not support the boycott.

“We do not want to be the facilitator or be the source of any boycotts of Target or any negative assault against Target,” Hood said. “They’ve made a business decision that we have to respect and move on.”

But such groups as Concerned Women for America, the American Family Association, the Christian Defense Coalition and the National Clergy Council have taken up the cause and are calling on their members to abstain from shopping at Target this Christmas season.

“It’s wrong to kick them out,” said Tim Wildmon of the American Family Association, a 2.3 million-member Mississippi group that has led boycotts against companies advertising on racy TV shows.

The National Clergy Council recently asked its 5,000 clergy members and 30,000 lay members to call on their congregations and others to stop shopping at Target, an effort it has dubbed “Operation Teach-Scrooge-a-Lesson.”

Protests have been organized at Target stores, and a few ministers have taken to their pulpits to preach against the retailing chain, which operates 1,313 stores nationwide. The Christian Defense Coalition, based in Fredericksburg, Va., had a small protest at the Fredericksburg store in early December and plans demonstrations at Washington-area Target stores, according to the Rev. Patrick Mahoney, director of the coalition.

“Our goal is to try to get Target to reverse their decision,” Mahoney said.

Target said the decision is firm.

Lena Michaud, a spokeswoman for the retailer, said the decision was not ideological and has been misinterpreted. She said the company decided it could no longer make the Salvation Army the sole exception to its rule against solicitation at stores.