Target Corp. is suing a San Diego pro-gay marriage group to get it to stop canvassing outside its San Diego County stores, alleging its activists are driving away customers.
Rights advocates say the trial between Target and Canvass For A Cause that begins Friday could further strain relations with the gay and lesbian community after controversy over its $150,000 donation to a business group backing a Minnesota Republican candidate opposed to gay marriage.
Minnesota-based Target insists it remains committed to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and its lawsuit has nothing to do with the political agenda of the organization.
"Our legal action was in no way related to the cause of the organization and was done so to be consistent with our long-standing policy of providing a distraction-free shopping experience by not permitting solicitors at our stores," the company said in a statement sent to The Associated Press.
Target says it has taken similar action against a number of organizations representing a variety of causes. It alleges in the lawsuit that the San Diego group's activists harass customers by cornering them near its stores' front entrances and debating with them about their views on gay marriage.
The group says it canvasses at shopping malls, college campus and stores like Target to collect signatures and donations in support of gay marriage.
The corporation says at least eight Target stores in the area have reported receiving more than a dozen complaints daily since canvassers started working outside their stores in October 2010. Target says the activists have refused to leave when asked politely and shown the company's policy prohibiting "expressive activity" on its property.
Canvass For A Cause director Tres Watson says Target wants to silence the 12,000-member group that formed in 2009 because it promotes gay marriage.
"It's very David vs. Goliath," he said. "We understand they're the Goliath in the room. They've got all money in world to get us to stop talking about gay marriage."
Watson says volunteers are trained daily on being professional and polite and their aim is to educate the public about the rights of gays and lesbians.
He says they have a right to work outside the stores and the courts have ruled in the past that shopping centers are today's public squares where freedom of speech should be allowed.
"We train our staff and volunteers very carefully in techniques in winning people over," he said. "When you're trying to persuade voters and reach out to the community with a message, there is no advantage to being aggressive."
Target was seen as an ally of the gay and lesbian community before it gave money to MN Forward, which supported Tom Emmer, who lost the governor's race to Democrat Mark Dayton.
Target later said it was sorry for the hurt feelings and tried to repair its public relations damage from the controversial donation. Target created a committee to help it better scrutinize decisions regarding financial donations.
The company also negotiated a deal with Lady Gaga to sell a special edition of her upcoming album in a partnership Gaga said was tied to their "reform," supporting the gay community and making up for past "mistakes." But the singer backed out a few weeks ago.