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Friday, October 4, 2013

No Jewish items at Hobby Lobby bias or business call?

MARLBORO, N.J. -- It can be a fine line between business and bias.

The latest example of that fragile boundary is occurring here, where one of the town's newest merchants, Hobby Lobby, found itself embroiled in a public clash over religious expression and its place in commerce.

The Oklahoma City-based behemoth of bric-a-brac carries just about everything, from burlap lamp shades to mustache stamp sets, but Marlboro residents learned late last week that the retailer, founded by devout Christian David Green, does not sell anything related to the Jewish faith.

In Marlboro, where roughly a quarter of the population is Jewish, this omission of merchandise amounts to some as religious bias.

But is it?

Experts say businesses are well within their legal rights to choose what merchandise they do and do not want on their shelves. That doesn't mean it's good business, however.

"To not offer what your customer wants is problematic from a purely business perspective," said Ann Buchholtz, professor of leadership and ethics at Rutgers Business School.

Segregation questions

But from a social perspective, it raises more troubling questions that hark back to the era of racial segregation, said John Pawlikowski, the director of the Catholic-Jewish studies program at the Catholic Theological Union in Illinois.

"Well, did Woolworth's have the right to say, 'No, blacks can't sit at our counter?'" Pawlikowski said. He added, "This one, it seems to be kind of a discrimination based on a theological outlook and history's cultural anti-Semitism."

Some in the area's large Jewish community have seen it that way since a viral blog post last Friday by resident Ken Berwitz revealed that the store does not offer Jewish-themed items. Online comments have lit up with vows to boycott the store and a fierce debate over the responsibility of a store to offer varied religious items.

Berwitz, 67, who is Jewish, said he was told over the phone by an employee that the store does not stock Jewish-themed items for Passover or Hanukkah because of Green's Christian values.

Berwitz translates it as "a national decision: We don't sell Jewish stuff to Jews."

But walk through certain communities on a Saturday, the Jewish sabbath, and try finding an open shop, let alone a Christmas card. So what's the difference between that and Hobby Lobby's decision not to stock dreidels and "Happy Hanukkah" banners?

The market.

Marlboro is a diverse area with a sizable Jewish population, so it would make sense to carry Jewish-themed items, Buchholtz said.

In a statement on Thursday, Hobby Lobby President Steve Green said the chain "previously carried merchandise in our stores related to Jewish holidays. We select the items we sell in our stores based on customer demand."

Customer research

Basic market research would show customer demand in the Marlboro area for Jewish-themed items, but Buchholtz said it wouldn't be surprising to learn that a company did not cover that basic step of learning the demographic of a new store location.

"My definition of marketing is 'Find out what people want, and give it to them,'" Daniel M. Ladik, associate professor of marketing at Seton Hall University, said in an email.

Hobby Lobby purports to operate on a different business model. All of the company's 561 locations nationwide are closed on Sunday "to allow employees time for family and worship," according to a sign posted on the Marlboro store's entrance. Its founder, Green, has proudly voiced and written about his company's Christian principles, including "to focus on people more than money." Last year, Hobby Lobby sued the federal government over its mandate that employers provide coverage for contraceptives.

In 2012, Forbes ranked Hobby Lobby No.147 on its list of largest privately held companies, with revenue of $3 billion.

Hobby Lobby is the latest in the marketplace to wade into the choppy current of social issues. Chick-Fil-A, also closed on Sundays, has become a lightning rod twice: Last year, when its president, Dan Cathy, said he supported a "traditional family," and then this past June when he tweeted that it was a "sad day" when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage.

And just last week, the local Italian market Joe Leone's waged a boycott against Barilla, the world's largest pasta producer, after Barilla's president said he would "never" show gay families in company advertisements.

Hobby Lobby declined a telephone interview with the Asbury Park Press and did not respond to questions via email.

However, it did deposit apologies all over its Facebook page to commenters who expressed concern over its policy of excluding Jewish items from its stores — and, allegedly, an intolerant comment by a store employee in Marlboro last week, also reported by Berwitz on his blog, Hopelessly Partisan.

At Temple Rodeph Torah, Rabbi Donald A. Weber is stressing to congregants to recognize the distinction between discrimination and business practice, he said, because "freedom is messy."

"If I walk into a Honda dealership and they don't have Ford parts, OK," Weber said.

But, he added, once a company makes its personal beliefs known, it is susceptible to being held to those beliefs, for good or bad.

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