If you thought the tide was turning in the fight over marriage equality, think again.
Evangelical preacher Franklin Graham, the son of Reverend Billy Graham, announced over the weekend that he plans to move hundreds of millions of dollars of Billy Graham Evangelistic Association's money from Wells Fargo because the San Francisco-based bank ran an ad featuring a lesbian couple. The ad depicts the couple learning sign language, as they get ready to adopt a child with a hearing impairment.
"Let's just stop doing business with those who promote sin and stand against Almighty God's laws and his standards," Graham wrote on Facebook over the weekend, in a post that has garnered nearly 100,000 likes. "Maybe if enough of us do this, it will get their attention."
Graham's post, first reported on by the Charlotte Obsrver, also singled out the upper-crust jeweler Tiffany's for disapprobation for its advertising to same-sex couples. Here's how BGEA further elaborated its position, from an emailed statement:
The decision to move the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association's banking business away from Wells Fargo is based on the bank using corporate advertising to promote lifestyles that are counter to what God's Word teaches. This is not about a business being gay friendly, it's about whether the business is using stockholder's money to promote a lifestyle that is not biblical.
The likelihood of same-sex marriage becoming a federal right has become a complicated flashpoint that has polarized the business community, for small and large businesses alike. As the Supreme Court gets ready in June to rule on the issue for the second time in two years, conservative states have rushed to enact so-called Religious Freedom Reformation Act (RFRA) laws that would allow businesses to object on religious grounds to serving LGBT people and same-sex couples.
In one recent example, a pizza parlor in Indiana closed its doors after considerable unwanted attention fell on the shop, whose owner refused to cater gay and lesbian weddings for religious reasons. It was later the recipient of nearly $1 million from sympathetic conservatives in a crowd-funding campaign on GoFundMe.
But businesses from Nike to Angie's List, an Inc. 5000 company, have pushed back equally forcefully, saying such laws are backward and violate their own policies of inclusion for customers and employees.
And Graham is in tricky territory because most financial services companies have LGBT-favorable policies, marketing experts said.
The new bank that Graham chose for his ministry's millions is a large, regional bank called BB&T, based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. BB&T supports LGBT inclusion, though perhaps not to the degree that Wells Fargo does.
Wells Fargo, in Human Rights Campaign's most recent corporate equality index, an annual ranking of the nation's largest businesses for LGBT workplace fairness, has a perfect score of 100. BB&T gets a slightly lower score of 80, for weaknesses in "transgender inclusive" health insurance, giving its LGBT employees complete parity with straight employees on partner benefits, and for support of its internal LGBT group.
While the bank does not appear to have done any LGBT-specific advertising, it has sponsored various gay pride and gay-oriented events, the bank said.
"As a company and a culture, BB&T embraces diversity and inclusion for our associates and in all aspects of our business," a BB&T spokeswoman said in an email. "However, we do not take formal positions on non-banking or social issues."
The unwanted public spotlight puts BB&T in a difficult position, despite the millions of dollars it will get from Graham's businesses. "It really is a disservice to BB&T, because they have an 80, but in the minds of LGBT people, it will be considered a zero," said Howard Buford, managing director of Quorum Consulting, a marketing, strategy and communications company in New York. Buford is a pioneer in advertising to the LGBT community, and was responsible for getting major companies such as AT&T and American Express to start advertising to the LGBT community in the 1990s.
By contrast, the dustup is something of a publicity win for Wells Fargo, Buford said. Not only does the event give its ad a much bigger viewership than it might normally have had, it allows Wells Fargo to be consistent with its branding and market message.
"It's a grand slam for Wells Fargo," Buford said, adding that it's a losing position for businesses that seek to exclude others. "The vast majority of people are just over this."
For its part, Wells Fargo is sticking to its guns. Here's what the bank had to say, in an emailed statement:
Wells Fargo's support for the LGBT community aligns with our broader commitment to diversity -to serve diverse customers, to hire, develop and retain diverse team members and to encourage team members to value and respect each other for their differences. Our advertising content reflects our company's values, and represents the diversity of the communities we serve.
And for BB&T, the publicity is an opportunity for the bank to promote the good work it has done, as well strengthen its existing policies.
"I would counsel them to continue to do this work," said Justin Nelson, co-founder and president of the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, an advocacy group for LGBT-owned businesses in the U.S. "They need to reinforce that they have been supportive of LGBT issues and causes."