updated 1/28/2005 10:02:59 AM ET 2005-01-28T15:02:59

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is expanding the definition of "immediate family" in its employee-ethics policy to account for laws in states that recognize domestic partnerships and civil unions.

The change drew quick praise from a major gay-rights lobbying organization.

The revised policy, which was disclosed Wednesday in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission recognizes that in some states "immediate family" includes an employee's same-sex partner.

The revisions deal with sections of the company's ethics code that bar employees from using confidential information to benefit themselves or immediate family members and from approaching Wal-Mart's suppliers about jobs for immediate family members, the company said Thursday.

Wal-Mart spokesman Gus Whitcomb declined to say whether the change would affect benefits for employees of the nation's largest employer or whether the revision meant the company was taking a position on same-sex marriage or civil unions.

"We updated our statement of ethics," Whitcomb said. "That brings us into compliance with state laws in terms of how they look at individuals with regard to policies" where a worker's "immediate family" would be a factor, he said.

For instance, in Massachusetts, where same-sex marriage is legal, Wal-Mart would expect its workers in that state to abide by the company's ethics policy as it pertains to families, Whitcomb said.

The Human Rights Campaign, a national lobbying group for gay and lesbian issues, praised Wal-Mart for expanding its definition of "immediate family."

"We are encouraged by this sign showing America's heartland employer understands same-sex couples share the responsibilities that come with being a family," Daryl Herrschaft, deputy director of Human Rights Campaign's WorkNet program, said in a statement.

Wal-Mart, based in Bentonville, is the world's largest retailer.

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