Starbucks says it was hoping to inspire old-fashioned coffee-house conversations when it introduced a campaign this year featuring the words...

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Starbucks says it was hoping to inspire old-fashioned coffee-house conversations when it introduced a campaign this year featuring the words of notable Americans on its coffee cups.

But at least a few of those words are sparking more discord than discussion.

A national Christian women’s organization is accusing the Seattle-based coffee maker of promoting a homosexual agenda because of a quote by author Armistead Maupin, whose “Tales of the City” chronicled San Francisco’s homosexual community in the 1970s and 1980s.

Maupin’s quote — one of several dozen in “The Way I See It” promotion — says his only regret about being gay is that he repressed it for so long.

“I surrendered my youth to the people I feared when I could have been out there loving someone. Don’t make that mistake yourself. Life’s too damn short.”

Concerned Women for America, which promotes itself as the antithesis of the National Organization for Women and boasts 8,700 supporters in Washington, says most of those quoted on the coffee cups are liberal.

The group believes corporations have a responsibility to reflect the diversity of their customers by taking a balanced approach — or staying out of divisive social issues altogether.

And while the group is not calling for a boycott, its position nonetheless raises questions about what role — if any — corporations should take on potentially sensitive matters, especially at a time when the nation is divided, largely along religious lines, on issues such as gay rights.

The way they see it

A sampling of contributions to Starbucks’ “The Way I See It” promotion

Michael Medved, radio talk-show host “Americans spend an average of 29 hours a week watching television … which means in a typical life span we devote 13 uninterrupted years to our TV sets! … Cutting down just an hour a day would provide extra years of life — for music and family, exercise and reading, conversation and coffee.”

Rita Golden Gelman, author, “Tales of a Female Nomad” … “Without risk, nothing new ever happens. Without trust, fear creeps in. Without serendipity, there are no surprises.”

Alice Randall, novelist and first black woman to write a No. 1 country song “Mother-love is not inevitable. The good mother is a great artist, ever creating beauty out of chaos.”

Erykah Badu, musician “The wise healer endures the pain. Cry. Tears bring joy.”

Nikki Giovanni, poet “Hot allusions. Metaphors over easy. Side order of rhythm. Message: If you want to be a poet you’ve got to eat right.”

Jonah Goldberg, editor, National Review Online “Everywhere, unthinking mobs of ‘independent thinkers’ wield tired cliches like cudgels, pummeling those who dare question ‘enlightened’ dogma. … Cliches begin arguments, they don’t settle them.”

J.A. Jance, crime novelist “When I began writing, the words that inspired me were these: ‘A writer is someone who has written today.’ If you want to be a writer, what’s stopping you?”

Source: Starbucks

“Corporations have deeper pockets and therefore more influence than individuals do,” said Maureen Richardson, state director of Concerned Women for America of Washington.

“I think it’s wiser for them to stay out of these issues so that they don’t offend conservatives and people of faith.”

To these companies, she says: “If you want my money, support some of my causes.”

But experts say that on controversial issues, no company can please all its customers all the time. Corporations, they say, need to pick their battles, staking out a position on issues they believe to be just.

“There are many religious-based social issues that are so hard for society to address right now — things like abortion and capital punishment — they’re better left for another time,” said Leo Hindery, author of “It Takes a CEO: Leading with Integrity.”

“But there are a couple of places where it is clear to me that there should be no ambiguity of corporate responsibility — the environment and civil rights,” Hindery said. “As a corporation, you cannot let the desire for unanimity override your obligation for fairness.”

“The Way I See It” campaign does not set out to take a political stand but rather to encourage discourse, Starbucks spokeswoman Audrey Lincoff said.

“If you think back to the history of the old coffee houses, before the Internet, these were places to converse,” she said. “That’s part of what the coffee culture has been for a century or more.”

Lincoff said the company does not characterize the personalities quoted on its coffee cups as liberal or conservative, but rather as a diverse group of artists, musicians, educators, activists and athletes.

Among them: music producer Quincy Jones, New Age author and alternative-medicine doctor Deepak Chopra, radio host and film critic Michael Medved, rap artist Chuck D and Olympic medalist Michelle Kwan.

The coffee company won’t be pulling the Maupin quote — or any other — from the campaign, but in fact will expand it to feature quotes from regular customers.

“Embracing diversity and treating people with dignity is one of the guiding principles of our corporation,” Lincoff said.

Richardson, of the women’s organization, cites possible support by Starbucks for pro-life clinics and the Boy Scouts of America as ways the company might offset its support of Planned Parenthood Federation of America and gay pride.

But Starbucks spokeswoman Lara Wyss said decisions about sponsoring gay-pride events and other causes are made at the store or regional level, not the corporate level. And while Starbucks matches employee contributions to charities such as Planned Parenthood, Wyss said, it doesn’t make outright corporate contributions to such groups.

Other corporations have also drawn controversy over sensitive topics.

Last spring, Ken Hutcherson, pastor of Antioch Bible Church in Redmond, threatened to boycott Microsoft if it didn’t back off its support of anti-discrimination legislation for gays here in Washington.

Microsoft withdrew, but said it had decided before Hutcherson issued his threat.

In Oregon last month, Nike withstood opposition and an e-mail campaign organized by a Christian organization over Nike’s support of legislation that would have allowed civil unions and banned discrimination against gays.

Both measures passed the Senate but did not make it to the House for a vote.

And for more than two decades now, members of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which advocates for the separation of state and church, said they have complained to Alaska Airlines about prayer cards the company distributes with in-flight meals.

The airline said it has been offering the cards for 30 years and has received positive responses along with complaints. Passengers are free to give the cards back or turn them over if they don’t want them, the carrier said.

John Hoover, a national business consultant and author who has advised such companies as IBM, Delta Air Lines and Boeing on the art of confrontation, said, “It’s not incumbent on corporations to operate with balance” as Richardson suggests.

“But when they stand by their conscience, they must be willing to accept the consequences.”

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