Baptist Group Rebukes Disney, Urges Boycott

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Southern Baptist Convention voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to urge its 16 million members to boycott Walt Disney Co. films, theme parks and merchandise to protest behavior it believes "disparages Christian values."

The nonbinding resolution, approved by more than 13,000 delegates attending the Baptists' annual gathering in New Orleans, was sharply critical of Disney's decision last year to extend health benefits to same-sex partners of gay employees.

The resolution said that action and Disney's toleration of gay nights at its theme parks constituted "promotion of homosexuality."

The document also lambasted Disney and its Miramax Productions film subsidiary for distributing "objectionable material" such as "Priest," the controversial 1995 film depicting sex among Catholic clergy that sparked a firestorm of protest from religious conservatives.

Disney responded to Wednesday's boycott action with a short prepared statement: "We find it curious that a group that claims to espouse family values would vote to boycott the world's largest producer of wholesome family entertainment."

Southern Baptists, the nation's largest Protestant group, also rank among the most conservative and influential Christian blocks. There are an estimated 144,000 Southern Baptists in California.

The Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, chairman of the Anaheim-based Traditional Values Coalition and an outspoken critic of Disney, predicted a groundswell of support for the boycott by like-minded religious groups.

"This boycott will grow," Sheldon said. "This is going to move more and more churches to take social action . . . to force Disney to live up to the values of its founders."

Previous religious boycotts of Disney have had little impact on the entertainment giant. Few noticed when the Florida Baptist Convention last year called upon that state's 1 million Baptists to boycott Disney products following the company's decision on same-sex partner benefits.

But Wall Street analyst Mario Gabelli said the weight of the powerful Southern Baptist Convention may present Disney with more of problem.

"Will it hurt their stock price? Probably not," Gabelli said. "Will it get [Disney Chairman] Michael Eisner's attention? Absolutely. Miramax was a mistake, and he knows it. This may focus Disney's attention back on the family entertainment that made the company great."

Although Disney has released far fewer films and books with adult content than its competitors, it is precisely because of the company's wholesome image that Christian conservatives are taking Disney to task for perceived lapses.

"It's major hypocrisy for a firm that presents itself as family oriented to serve up sleaze," said Art Toalston, editor of the Baptist Press, from the convention in New Orleans. "This boycott is for real, and we expect that most Southern Baptists will stay the course."

However, Arvin Gowens, associate pastor of First Southern Baptist Church in Fountain Valley, says he won't discard his annual pass to Disneyland just yet.

"I think my first move will be to send a letter to Disney asking them to reconsider the [gay partner] benefits issue," Gowens said. "I'll tell them that I'm keeping my pass but that I'm very much in favor of them reviewing their policies.

"It's time for them to realize that this family values thing is strong and real. Any resolution that's got the word 'boycott' in it is a strong one."

Some religious activists question whether the Baptist boycott is a wise or effective move, and they worry that it would hurt Christians employed across Disney's far-flung entertainment empire.

"I think their heart is right, but their head is in the wrong place," said Phillip Myles, an agent for gospel artists and a board member of the San Fernando Valley-based Christian Entertainers Fellowship. Phillips also opposed the 1988 Christian-led boycott against Universal Pictures over its release of the controversial film "The Last Temptation of Christ."

A top official of the gay-oriented International Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, based in Hollywood, said that it was no surprise that Southern Baptists "are not on the front lines of supporting civil rights or a more inclusive concept of family."

The Rev. Nancy Wilson, vice-moderator of the denomination and pastor of the founding Los Angeles congregation, added that Disney is no different from Sea World, Universal Studios and other theme parks in allowing gay and lesbian organizations to hold special event nights at the park.

As for Southern Baptists boycotting Disney theme parks, "I wonder what Southern Baptist children think about that," she said.

Whether the Baptist boycott gathers enough momentum to hurt Disney's bottom line remains to be seen. But some boycotts in recent years have proved highly successful.

Convention planners dealt Arizona a huge blow during the late 1980s and early 1990s after the state failed to set aside a holiday in the name of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

"That boycott resulted in the loss of 165,000 attendees, which in turn prompted an economic loss of $190 million between 1987 and 1993, when the population voted for the holiday," said Larry Hilliard, vice president of the Phoenix and Valley of the Sun Convention and Visitors Bureau in Arizona.

"Those were groups that canceled, and later on we found out that there were other groups that fully intended to come to Arizona but didn't because of the Dr. King issue. So you can see that the $190 million figure was a conservative number."

Hilliard said Arizona officials did their best "to get the truth out. We were being called a racist state, and we were not a racist state."

Elected officials and tourism industry executives traveled around the country meeting with convention groups that dropped bookings. "We took a whole group to Chicago to meet with the Public Relations Society of America and were successful in convincing them that they should hold their meeting here."

Gone are the days, Hilliard said, when tourism and convention attractions "simply sell the destination. You are caught up in the political realities and the community issues. We learned our lesson--you have to get involved."

Also contributing to this report were Times staff writers Greg Johnson and John Dart.

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