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Religious Right Shuns Disney for Benefits to Gays : Values: One group plans to boycott. Disney says it just wants to be nondiscriminatory.

December 26, 1995|MIKE CLARY and JAMES BATES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MIAMI — Until recently, Tim Benson would have described himself, his wife, Diane, and their two young children as a typical Disney family. From their home in suburban Miami, they enjoyed repeated video viewings of Disney movies such as "The Lion King," visited the Magic Kingdom at least once a year and even had a stash of "Disney Dollars" put aside for their next vacation.

"I've probably been to Disney World 100 times, and my wife used to work there," says Benson, who grew up in Orlando, where Disney's three theme parks, the Magic Kingdom, EPCOT Center and Disney/MGM Studios, make up what is called the world's No. 1 tourist destination.

But Benson, the 37-year-old pastor of the West Kendall Baptist Church, says he and his family won't be having anything to do with Walt Disney Co. "until their policies change."

The issue that has most inflamed Benson and other Christians--and led at least one conservative group to call for a boycott of Disney theme parks, films and products--is the company's decision to extend health benefits to the live-in partners of gay employees. Disney says extending the benefits is in line with its policy of not discriminating.

The decision has been the catalyst for a small, but fervent, anti-Disney protest among some Christians and other conservatives, particularly in Florida, where Mickey Mouse is the single largest corporate player in the state's $32-billion annual tourism industry.

The Florida Baptist Convention, of which Benson is vice president, last month passed a resolution expressing "our high degree of disappointment" over Disney's corporate decisions on homosexuality, its ties to cruise vacations that feature gambling and alcohol, and the content of certain films. The resolution calls on the 1 million Southern Baptists in Florida to "prayerfully reconsider their continued purchase and support of Disney products."

The protest has sparked little public comment from inside the corporate offices of the entertainment conglomerate founded by the notoriously conservative Walt Disney in 1923. But Disney executives privately grumble that such moral crusades are thinly disguised fund-raising gimmicks aimed at drawing media attention and contributions to the organizations.

Some company sources, along with Wall Street analysts, look at the boycott talk as little more than a nuisance, the kind of controversy that Disney periodically is forced to weather because, as the nation's top family entertainment company, it presents a fat target.

"It's invisible," said Cowen & Co. entertainment analyst Harold Vogel, who has followed Disney for 26 years. "They can threaten all they want, but realistically their kids want the Disney stuff. And if they don't buy the Disney stuff, there are so many other people interested in it that it doesn't matter."

Ironically, Disney was one of the last Hollywood studios to change its domestic-partner policies, and it had been criticized in the entertainment community for moving too slowly. Sources said one reason for the new policy was a practical one: Disney doesn't want to be at a disadvantage in offering benefits when competing with other studios for talented workers.

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The resolution at the Florida Baptist Convention stops short of declaring a boycott. But the ultraconservative American Family Assn., headed by the Rev. Donald E. Wildmon of Tupelo, Miss., interpreted the resolution as a call for a boycott, endorsed it, and urged the 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention to join the movement when it convenes this June in New Orleans.

Fifteen Florida legislators also registered their objection to the health benefits decision in an open letter to Michael Eisner in which the Disney chairman is chastised for endorsing "a lifestyle that is unhealthy, unnatural and unworthy of special treatment."

No other national groups have backed the boycott, although the Colorado-based Focus on the Family, a widely heard radio ministry headed by James Dobson, has expressed sympathy for the protest, spokesman Mark Maddox said.

Over the last few years, Wildmon's American Family Assn. has called for boycotts of a veritable who's who of top American corporations, usually in retribution for sponsoring objectionable television programs or selling magazines deemed offensive. Current AFA boycott targets include Circle K stores, Holiday Inns Inc., Levi Strauss & Co. and Warner-Lambert Co.

Disney posted a record profit of $1.38 billion for the year ended Sept. 30, with revenue topping $12 billion. It's about to buy Capital Cities/ABC Inc. for $19 billion, and has the top family movie of the holidays in "Toy Story," which this week will pass the $100-million mark. It also is forging ahead with plans to enlarge its empire with a 500-acre Wild Animal Kingdom, a zoological theme park scheduled to open in Florida in 1998.

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