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Baptist Group Rebukes Disney, Urges Boycott

June 13, 1996|MARLA DICKERSON | 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.

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