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Target in the Crosshairs 

Lots of us were disappointed when the Rapture failed to take place May 21 -- both the Christians who predicted they'd be spirited up to Heaven, and those of us who'd be glad to see them go. Just think: Had God held up His end, we wouldn't be facing a gay-bashing Rick Santorum presidential candidacy now. 

And if Santorum does somehow get any traction, it will be thanks to earthly powers. Like those that will be called out at noon on June 8, the day this issue hits the streets. 

That's the hour that activists from around the country have planned to descend on the new East Liberty Target. Their cause? Protecting citizens -- LGBT citizens especially -- from having their lives dictated by corporate whim. 

Last year, Minnesota-based Target gave $150,000 to a political committee that supported a Republican gubernatorial candidate there, Tom Emmer. Emmer is a social conservative in the Santorum mold: As a state legislator, for example, he opposed legislation giving a same-sex partner control over disposing of a loved one's remains after death.

Target is holding its annual shareholders' meeting in Pittsburgh, to celebrate the new location. But for a wide array of groups, ranging from LGBT advocates to national good-government organizations, it's a chance to denounce Target's actions back home. The Emmer donation, they say, points up the dangers inherent in the controversial U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United. That 2010 decision allows corporations to spend unlimited amounts on election ads -- using corporate bank accounts to pay for influence instead of equipment, or wages for employees.

"We all believe that corporations have no business making political contributions," says Michael Morrill of Keystone Progress, a protest organizer. Emmer lost -- in part because of active spending by unions -- but activists are worried Target's contribution will set a precedent. As one protest flyer puts it, "It's time to remind Target and other corporations gearing up for the 2012 elections that our democracy is not for sale."

Target might seem an unlikely villain. Its Pittsburgh location will serve, and provide employment opportunities for, some of Pittsburgh's most neglected neighborhoods.  ("We're not calling for a boycott," Morrill notes. The point is to pressure corporate execs, he adds -- not punish store employees. "Target is doing a good thing by opening a city-based store.") 

What's more, Target treats its own LGBT employees well. In previous years, the retailer has enjoyed a perfect "100" rating on the Corporate Equality Index, a ranking of employer LGBT-friendliness compiled by the Human Rights Campaign. The campaign docked Target 15 points after the Emmer donation, but its score of 85 is still twice that of, say, Wal-Mart.

Target CEO Greg Steinhafel has argued, essentially, that "The tax breaks made us do it." Emmer's platform included phasing out state corporate taxes, and as Steinhafel wrote to employees, Target has "a history of supporting organizations and candidates ... who seek to advance policies aligned with our business objectives." Its support of gay employees, he added, was "unwavering."  

But activists say it's not enough to be for LGBT rights 364 days a year, and then chuck your principles out the window on Election Day. "You can't [claim] you support a welcoming environment, and at the same time fund candidates who want to take away rights from individuals," Mike Dean, of Common Cause Minnesota, wrote me.  

Or can you? What we're seeing here is the clash between two of America's most successful modern political movements. On one hand are LGBT Americans seeking recognition from society. On the other are economic elites seeking to be exempted from social obligations. Big employers, meanwhile, are trying to have it both ways -- reaping the good PR of being a "progressive" employer while enjoying tax breaks, deregulation and a political environment opposed to unions. (The New York Times recently reported that labor activists are stepping up efforts to organize Target stores, none of which are unionized.) Our definition of the family is changing. But corporate paternalism, apparently, never goes away.

If a "values conservative" like Rick Santorum somehow becomes the next president, it won't be because most Americans agree with homophobic attacks. It will be because too many business leaders were willing to ignore them.

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