NEW YORK – A conservative group that had called on supporters to boycott Wal-Mart's post-Thanksgiving day sales to protest the retailer's support of gay-rights groups withdrew its objections Tuesday, saying the company had agreed to stay away from controversial causes.
The American Family Association, which had been asking supporters to stay away from Wal-Mart on Friday and Saturday — two of the busiest shopping days of the year — said it was pleased by a statement the company issued Tuesday.
While stressing its commitment to diversity and equality, Wal-Mart (WMT) said in its statement that it "will not make corporate contributions to support or oppose highly controversial issues unless they directly relate to our ability to serve our customers."
Mona Williams, Wal-Mart's vice president of communications, said in a telephone interview that the company would continue working with the Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce and other gay-rights groups on specific issues such as workplace equality.
"Going forward, we would partner with them on specific initiatives. ...As to opposed to just giving blanket support to their general operating budget," she said.
The company's statement, she said, resulted primarily from concerns expressed by customers and employees, not from the boycott threat.
There was no immediate word from a second conservative group, Operation Save America, on whether it was reconsidering its plans for prayer-and-preaching rallies outside many Wal-Mart stores on Friday.
The corporate actions that had triggered the protest plans were little different from those taken by scores of major companies in recent years — Wal-Mart paid $25,000 this summer to become a member of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce and donated $60,000 to Out and Equal, which promotes gay-rights advances in the workplace.
However, some conservative activists depicted Wal-Mart's engagement as endorsement of same-sex marriage and a pledge to give gay-owned businesses preferential treatment — assertions Wal-Mart denied in its statement Tuesday.
Conservative leaders had viewed Wal-Mart's actions as a betrayal of its own traditions, which have included efforts to weed out magazines with racy covers and CDs with explicit lyrics.
"This has been Christian families' favorite store — and now they're giving in, sliding down the slippery slope so many other corporations have gone down," said the Rev. Flip Benham of Operation Save America. "They're all being extorted by the radical homosexual agenda."
Justin Nelson, president of the Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, said earlier Tuesday that conservative activists had misrepresented his business-oriented group as a leading advocate of gay marriage in order to tarnish Wal-Mart.
"Their campaign has not been to educate, but to mislead," he said.
Wal-Mart ranks in the middle among companies rated by the Human Rights Campaign, a major gay-rights group, for workplace policies toward gays. Scores of companies now have a perfect 100 rating, while Wal-Mart's rating has risen from 14 in 2002 to 65 this year as it added sexual orientation to its nondiscrimination code and offered some domestic-partner benefits.
Earlier Tuesday, before the American Family Association dropped its protest, Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese said he spoke with a Wal-Mart executive Tuesday and came away confident the company would continue efforts to promote workplace equality for gays.
A message left with the Human Rights Campaign after business hours Tuesday seeking comment was not immediately returned.
Tim Wildmon, the American Family Association's president, said Wal-Mart had been responsive to conservative pressure on a different issue, approving use of the word "Christmas" in advertising and employee greetings this season after shifting to a "happy holidays" phrasing last year.
That campaign was one of the first times Wal-Mart came under sustained criticism from the right. Far more often, it has been a target of left-of-center groups, such as WakeUpWalMart.com, complaining that the company pays low wages, skimps on employee benefits and outsources too many jobs.
The company has responded by adding low-cost health care plans, launching environmental programs and increasing diversity among employees and suppliers.
Gary Chaison, an industrial relations professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., said the conflicting pressures on Wal-Mart are "the price of being big and having many constituencies."
"Everyone expects Wal-Mart, because it has so many stores, to set the moral tone for America," he said. "The company has been trying to find a middle road, and it's had a great deal of difficulty doing that."
Another major corporation, Ford Motor Co., already is the target of an American Family Association boycott because it advertises in gay publications and supports gay-rights groups.
The Tupelo, Miss.-based AFA says 550,000 people have signed a pledge to boycott Ford and it takes partial credit for the company's financial problems. Ford spokesman Oscar Suris declined comment; an industry analyst, University of Detroit professor Michael Bernacchi, was doubtful the boycott was having much impact.