Starbucks is in a flap on Friday after its CEO, Howard Schultz, begged off a speaking engagement with the a Chicago-area church that was to have been broadcast widely to other sites. Schultz canceled on Willow Creek Church's two-day Global Leadership Summit at the last minute as a petition at Change.org calling for him not to attend the event gained just fewer than 800 signatures. The petition said Schultz's appearance was "unacceptable" because of the church's "anti-gay views." Compared to the online audience of 150,000 and the 1,100 who paid to attend, that's a pretty small number. It's likely that the petition may have gone unnoticed (or at least that Starbucks would have ignored it), were it not for an unfortunate event in one of the company's stores back in June.
Homophobia is a touchy thing for Starbucks these days, ever since a Long Island blogger posted a lengthy report in June about Starbucks employees in a store there going on a homophobic rant about a gay co-worker. The blogger, Alison, wrote that a woman who appeared to be an executive led "one of the most brazen and unapologetic displays of homophobia I have ever witnessed in my entire life" against an employee named Jeffrey, who she yelled at and then forced to resign.
Of course, that kind of publicity does not stay in the realm of Long Island family blogs for long, and soon newspapers from the New York Daily News to the Seattle Post Intelligencer were reporting on "grande homophobic charges" and "anti-gay behavior." Gawker quickly reported that Starbucks "was in damage control mode," and a host of other blogs condemned the company. Starbucks, which had been sued in 2008 by two former employees who said they were fired for being gay, immediately issued a statement saying it was "disheartened" by the allegations and had "zero tolerance for discrimination of any kind."
Since then, things have been calm, but it's clear from the ease with which Schultz bailed out of Friday's conference that the company is still pretty sensitive about the issue. But now the Christians Schultz was supposed to address are annoyed. The Toledo Blade spoke to the pastor of a church there that was to host a broadcast of the conference.
The Rev. Lee Powell, senior pastor of CedarCreek Church, which draws 8,500 people a week, called Mr. Schultz's decision to cancel "stupid" and said he will have a hard time buying any Starbucks products. He said he plans to "sit back and see how Starbucks handles all this" before supporting the coffee company.
Meanwhile, Willow Creek has launched its own PR offensive, trying to shake the allegation of homophobia. "Jim Mellado (president of Willow Creek Association) and I spent 45 minutes in a very constructive conversation with the senior leaders at Starbucks explaining to them in no uncertain terms that Willow is not anti-gay," pastor Bill Hybels told the Christian Post. "But at the end of the day they decided that the downside business risk was just too high for them." Hybels "urged conference participants to buy a Starbucks coffee and post a comment on Starbucks' Web site urging Mr. Schultz to speak at the summit next year," the Blade reported. Schultz himself has been quiet on the issue, and the company hasn't mentioned it on its Twitter feed or website.