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Erik Eckholm, NYTimes: Retailers Are Put on the Spot Over Anti-Gay Aid

Retailers Are Put on the Spot Over Anti-Gay Aid
by Erik Eckholm, September 25, 2011

The culture war over gay rights has entered the impersonal world of e-commerce.

A handful of advocates, armed with nothing more than their keyboards, have put many of the country’s largest retailers, including Apple, Microsoft, Netflix and Wal-Mart, on the spot over their indirect and, until recently, unnoticed roles in funneling money to Christian groups that are vocal in opposing homosexuality.

The advocates are demanding that the retailers end their association with an Internet marketer that gets a commission from the retailers for each online customer it gives them. It is a routine arrangement on hundreds of e-commerce sites, but with a twist here: a share of the commission that retailers pay is donated to a Christian charity of the buyer’s choice, from a list that includes prominent conservative evangelical groups like the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family.

The marketer and the Christian groups are fighting back, saying that the hundred or so companies that have dropped the marketer were misled and that the charities are being slandered for their religious beliefs.

The national battle was ignited in July by Stuart Wilber, a 73-year-old gay man in Seattle. He was astonished, he said, when he learned that people who bought Microsoft products through a Christian-oriented Internet marketer known as Charity Giveback Group, or CGBG, could channel a donation to evangelical organizations that call homosexual behavior a threat to the moral and social fabric.

“I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding, Microsoft,’ ” he recalled, noting that the software giant — like many other corporations accessible through the commerce site, including Apple and Netflix — was known as friendly to gay causes.

In July, Mr. Wilber went to a Web site that helps groups and individuals circulate petitions, called, and started one, asking Microsoft to end its association with what he called “hate groups.” By that night, 520 people had signed, with their ire copied to Microsoft officials — and Microsoft had quietly dropped out of the donation plan. Much to Mr. Wilber’s surprise, this would be the start of an electronic conflict that has put hundreds of well-known companies in an unwelcome glare.

On one side are angry gay-rights advocates and bloggers, wielding the club of the gay community’s purchasing power.

On the other side are conservative Christian groups that say they are being attacked for their legitimate biblical views of sex and marriage, as well as a Web marketing firm that feels trampled for providing consumers with free choice.

Caught in the middle are companies, including such giants as Macy’s, Expedia and Delta Air Lines, which have the dual aims of avoiding politics but not offending any consumers. In this case, they have been pressured to make a choice that may involve little money either way but that could offend large blocs of consumers.

“This is economic terrorism,” said Mike Huckabee, the former pastor, governor and presidential contender, who is a paid CGBG consultant. “To try to destroy a business because you don’t like some of the customers is, to me, unbelievably un-American,” he said in an interview.

CGBG, a for-profit company formerly called the Christian Values Network, resembles hundreds of so-called affiliate marketers, which retailers use to bring customers to their own Web sites. The affiliate receives a commission on any sales, and CGBG allows buyers to send half that commission to any of the Christian charities on its list.

In July, as word of Mr. Wilber’s victory spread virally, Ben Crowther, a college student in Bellingham, Wash., started a similar Internet appeal to Apple, which would soon succeed after drawing 22,700 signers. Roy Steele, who runs a gay-rights Web site in San Francisco, picked up the crusade, directly contacting about 150 companies listed on the e-commerce site., a gay-rights group in New York with hundreds of thousands of e-mail-ready members, focused on the travel industry, helping to push Avis, Westin Hotels & Resorts, Expedia and many other hotels and travel agencies to disassociate themselves from CGBG.

Close to 100 companies have left the charity arrangement, though most refuse to discuss the matter. These have become the objects, in turn, of a countercampaign from the Christian groups — “Please Don’t Discriminate Against My Faith” is the heading of a sample letter — and of high-level entreaties from Mr. Huckabee and other Christian leaders.

A few companies that briefly left the network have been persuaded to rejoin, including Delta, PetSmart, Sam’s Club, Target and Wal-Mart.

“People have been misled. The retailers are not donating to anyone; they are simply paying a commission to get traffic,” John Higgins, the president of CGBG, said in an interview.

He said CGBG focused on Christian consumers and marketing through large organizations like Focus on the Family because it saw an untapped commercial opportunity.

“Retailers should keep their doors open to everybody,” Mr. Higgins said. He also complained that some competing e-commerce sites included the same conservative groups on charity lists but had not been subjected to similar attacks.

Beyond condemning the advocates’ efforts as an infringement on consumer freedom, Mr. Huckabee said it was offensive to apply the “hate group” label to organizations that are legal, peaceful and promote biblical values.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled the Family Research Council a hate group for “regularly pumping out known falsehoods that demonize the gay community,” said Mark Potok, a project director at the law center — and not, he said, because the council calls homosexuality a sin or opposes gay marriage. The falsehoods, he said, include the discredited claim that gay men are especially prone to pedophilia.

The Family Research Council has accused the law center of “slanderous attacks.”

Advocates insist that their push is not anti-Christian. “It has nothing to do with biblical positions,” said Mr. Steele, the blogger. “It has to do with the fact that these groups spread lies and misinformation about millions of Americans.”

The discomfort of retailers has been evident in their varied responses. Expedia, in an e-mail to in August, confirmed that it had withdrawn from the network. “Expedia values diversity in its employee base and customer base and does not support discrimination of any kind based on sexual orientation,” the message said.

Barneys New York said it had left CGBG because of the site’s support for groups that promote discrimination.

But Microsoft, though it led the way with its swift response, has never said a public word about it, nor has Apple been willing to do more than confirm that it no longer is associated with CGBG.

This summer, Macy’s told that it had left the network because “Macy’s serves a diverse society” and is “deeply committed to a philosophy of inclusion,” but the retailer declined to comment for this article.

In a statement explaining why it had returned to the network, Wal-Mart and its sister company Sam’s Club said their marketing affiliates included “more than 43,000 diverse organizations” that “serve a wide range of interests with diverse viewpoints.”

Delta changed course “because of the letters we received from several faith-based leaders,” including Mr. Huckabee, said Chris Kelly Singley, manager of corporate communications. “This was important to them, and we were willing to reconsider,” she said, adding that Delta had a history of supporting gay and lesbian causes.

“We don’t want to engage in a political debate,” Ms. Singley said. “And we just thought we were flying airplanes.”

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