Southern Baptist Delegates OK Disney Boycott
The Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas on Wednesday overwhelmingly declared a sweeping boycott of the Walt Disney Co., for decades the symbol of innocent family amusement, to protest what delegates called the entertainment giant’s “gay-friendly” policies.
Delegates urged the 15.7 million Southern Baptists--the largest Protestant denomination in the United States--to “refrain from patronizing the Disney Co. and any of its related entities,” despite their own admission that the boycott may not succeed in changing the company’s policies.
Rejecting suggestions to take a narrow focus against only some parts of the Disney empire, delegates in effect asked churchgoers to shun all the corporation’s businesses, from Disneyland and the Disney Channel to ABC and ESPN, from the Anaheim Angels and the Mighty Ducks professional sports teams to Disney retail stores to the new Club Disney in Thousand Oaks.
Disney executives have declined to directly address the boycott threat in recent months, but have reported a particularly profitable year.
“We’re proud that the Disney brand creates more family entertainment of every kind than anyone else in the world,” Ken Green, a spokesman for the Burbank-based corporation, said Wednesday in a prepared statement. “We plan to continue our leadership role and, in fact, we will increase production of family entertainment.”
Whether the boycott hurts Disney financially is not the point, said convention President Tom Elliff, pastor of a church in Del City, Okla.
“The issue is not Disney coming down,” said Elliff before the vote. “The issue is Baptists going up to the level of God.”
Indeed, Lisa Kinney of Largo, Fla., brought many of the 12,000 delegates, who are called messengers, to their feet Wednesday when she said that the resolution “will affirm to the world that we love Jesus more than our entertainment.”
Messengers to last year’s annual meeting had threatened a boycott, complaining about the company providing insurance benefits for same-sex partners of gay employees and the unofficial, well-attended “Gay Days” at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., among other issues. Church leaders had hoped last year’s threat would prompt Disney to change its policies.
Baptist leaders say the crowning blow came this year when actress Ellen DeGeneres came out as a lesbian personally and as the lead character on the sitcom “Ellen” on Disney’s ABC network.
The formal boycott vote comes amid a string of highly profitable Disney films and the opening of the animated feature “Hercules” next week.
Criticism of the goals and wisdom of the Baptist action came from inside and outside the entertainment industry and even from the floor of the Dallas convention.
Before the resolution was approved by a show of hands, the Rev. Rick Markham of Snellville, Ga., objected that the convention was taking an extreme position--"throwing out the baby with the bathwater.”
The Disney Co. “has earned too much credibility among families to be hurt by a boycott,” said Hollywood publicist Howard Bragman. In addition, he said, “Disney, like every other company, has gay and lesbian employees at the highest levels, and the standard today for all studios is to offer same-sex benefits in order to hire and keep the best employees.”
David M. Smith, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights group, said at a Dallas news conference that “it was morally wrong for delegates . . . to punish a company for simply refusing to discriminate against gay Americans.”
Resentment against Disney has been building among Southern Baptist leaders since the group issued its warning last year. Wednesday’s resolution cited a report from the Baptists’ Nashville-based Christian Life Commission that Disney “not only ignored our concerns but flagrantly furthered this moral digression in its product and policies.”
The commission’s president, Richard Land, said last week that he would recommend that the delegates consider a “targeted boycott"--limiting the action to Disneyland and Disney World--rather than asking churchgoers to avoid all Disney enterprises.
But the messengers were in no mood to narrow the boycott call. They turned down a proposed amendment by the Rev. Walter Price, pastor of First Southern Baptist Church of Beaumont, Calif., to limit the boycott to one month each year.
The boycott resolution is not binding on Southern Baptist church members.
It drew a mixed response among a sampling of Southern Baptists in California, where about 375,000 people attend about 1,400 churches.
At First Southern Baptist Church in Lancaster, Pastor Donald Parker said, “I think a statement ought to be made about the family, but I don’t chuck people out the door just because I disagree with them.”
Claudia Cosby, 69, of Los Angeles said she is loyal to her Southern Baptist church but also to her own conscience. “There’s a lot of gay people in Southern Baptist churches,” she said. “That should be a person’s private affair.”
But a church secretary named Joyce, who spoke on the condition that her last name and place of employment be withheld, said she considered the boycott justified.
“I don’t want to support anything that violates God’s law,” she said. “Teachers are teaching that the gay and lesbian lifestyle is a normal relationship. I don’t support that [idea] moving forward.”
Bryan Choe, a youth director at a Los Angeles church, agreed that the Bible considers homosexuality a sin. But he said he did not support the new action.
“They’re trying to say that homosexuality is wrong, and I agree with that,” Choe said, but “I would be very surprised if the kids at church are not allowed to have any Disney products, wear their T-shirts, watch Disney videos and go to Disneyland during summer vacation.”
The Rev. George Halley, associate pastor at Crescent Southern Baptist Church in Anaheim--next door to Disneyland--said he expects that his church will join the boycott after deacons discuss the issue.
“I don’t think that there would be too many people who would boycott, to tell you the truth,” Halley said, conceding that he does not expect Disney to change its policies. Yet, he said, “we’ve got to take a stand for right and wrong.”
The Rev. Wiley S. Drake, of the 150-member First Southern Baptist Church in Buena Park, has been a driving force behind the boycott. He said he stopped sending youth groups to nearby Disneyland last year and has urged church members to refrain from buying or renting Disney films.
Drake said he was dismayed by Disney’s “anti-family, anti-Christian drift,” and infuriated that Disney Chief Executive Officer Michael Eisner ignored his almost weekly faxed letters.
“Then they brought Ellen out of the closet and I thought, ‘That’s it. Everybody out of the pool.’ They have really taken a dive in the last few years,” Drake said Wednesday from Dallas.
At the national level, Baptist boycott advocates were encouraged in the past year by similar anti-Disney crusades declared by the 2.5-million-member Assemblies of God and the ardently conservative American Family Assn., whose president, Donald Wildmon, said he has mailed 400,000 brochures blasting Disney and has orders for another 200,000.
However, evangelical leaders are usually quick to observe that neither evangelical churches nor the Christian Right commands a unified response when it comes to showing their displeasure with liberal values in secular society.
Ted Baehr, publisher of the evangelical-oriented Movieguide magazine, said last week that he and other Christians seeking to encourage family-friendly productions in Hollywood oppose boycotts as counterproductive. Contrary to Southern Baptist claims, Baehr said, “Disney didn’t show an anti-Christian trend in movies this last year and I don’t think Disney has adopted ‘anti-family’ work policies--this is a national trend.”
And when asked last year about the prospective Southern Baptist boycott against Disney, Ralph Reed, the outgoing executive director of Christian Coalition, told The Times, “I’m taking my kids to Disneyland.”
Times staff writers Joe Mozingo, Lee Romney, Scott Martelle and Martin Miller contributed to this story.
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What Disney Owns
Among the holdings of the Walt Disney Co., which Southern Baptists voted Wednesday to boycott:
* Theme parks: Disneyland in Anaheim; Walt Disney World in Orlando.
* Retail: The Disney Store, more than 535 stores.
* Movie studios, with selected releases: Walt Disney Pictures: “The Lion King,” “Hercules” and “101 Dalmatians”; Touchstone Pictures: “Con Air” and “Phenomenon”; Hollywood Pictures: “The Rock” and “Evita”; Caravan Pictures: “Powder”; Miramax: “The English Patient,” “Sling Blade” and “Pulp Fiction.”
* Broadcast: ABC television and radio networks; shows include “Home Improvement,” “Ellen,” “Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee” and “Siskel & Ebert”
* Cable: The Disney Channel; 80% of ESPN; 37.5% of A & E Television Networks; 50% of the parent company of Lifetime Television
* Sports: Owner of the Mighty Ducks, Anaheim’s hockey team; general partner of Major League baseball’s Anaheim Angels
* Music: Hollywood Records, which includes such acts as Queen and the Suicide Machines; Walt Disney Records, primary soundtracks to Disney animated and children’s films.
* Print: Newspapers, which are up for sale, include the Oakland Press in Pontiac, Mich., and two papers in Oregon, the Albany Democrat-Herald and the Daily Tidings of Ashland.
* Magazines: Discover and Los Angeles.
* Book publishing: Hyperion Press.
* Plays: “Beauty and the Beast” currently on Broadway; “The Lion King,” set to open this fall.
* Other ventures: Disney Cruise Line, Disney Vacation Clubs, Club Disney in Thousand Oaks
Source: Associated Press