Eight months after sparking a national firestorm over donations in support of a political candidate who opposed gay rights, Target Corp. once again is raising the ire of the gay and lesbian community by suing a California advocacy group that has been lobbying for same-sex marriage outside its stores.
The company wants to ban activists with the grassroots group Canvass for a Cause from its properties, saying their recent activities at eight San Diego-area stores have made customers feel uncomfortable and could be hurting business.
"In response to feedback from many guests, Target long ago established a solicitation policy at our stores nationwide," the company said in a statement. "We do not permit solicitation or petitioning at our stores regardless of the cause or issue being represented."
Lawyers for Canvass for a Cause have argued in court filings that store fronts and shopping centers are part of the public square, where free speech ought to be protected.
"You've seen activists like us at almost every store in the country," said Canvass for a Cause executive director Tres Watson. "Twenty-somethings in t-shirts with clipboards, saying 'Hey, do you support gay marriage?' And when people say no, we say, 'Well do you want to talk about it?'
"Target is alleging that our people are angry, militant, homosexual activists. But if you think through it logically, there's nothing [that] supports our cause [by] acting that way, and we don't," he said.
A judge in San Diego County Superior Court heard arguments in the case today and is expected to issue a ruling on the restraining order late next week.
Target wants to preserve a "distraction-free shopping experience" and has consistently taken legal action against groups which infringe on that experience, regardless of their viewpoint or affiliation.
But Watson said the suit in just the latest example of how Target has broken with its record of supporting gay and lesbian community groups in the past.
Last year, Target triggered outrage among some employees, customers and interest groups for a $150,000 contribution supporting Republican Minnesota gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, who opposed same-sex marriage and greater legal protections for gays and lesbians. Emmer ultimately lost to Democrat Mark Dayton.
"Their political spending makes their opinions known," Watson said. "And they're not making political contributions in support of gay rights. I understand they supported Emmer for his pro-business positions, but they should have put an equal amount to a pro-gay group."
Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel apologized for the donation, saying at the time, "Our decision affected many of you in a way I did not anticipate, and for that I am genuinely sorry." And company officials sought to reassure critics by pointing out that Target has been a regular donor to gay and lesbian community organizations.
Target also recently revamped its political expenditure policy, mandating that proposed political donations must align with the company's core values, not just their business interests, and be reviewed by internal committees that include a diversity of viewpoints.
But in a sign of just how much the controversy continues to reverberate, Lady Gaga, who signed a deal with Target to sell the deluxe edition of her new album, "Born This Way," backed out of the partnership last week in protest over Target's political activities.