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Published: Friday, 8/12/2011

Starbucks' CEO cancels megachurch talk

Online petition started against host church's stance on homosexuality

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE RELIGION EDITOR
An online petition group called for Howard Schultz to withdraw because of the host church's stance on homosexuality. An online petition group called for Howard Schultz to withdraw because of the host church's stance on homosexuality.
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Howard Schultz, Starbucks' chairman, CEO, and president, canceled a talk Friday at a Chicago-area megachurch that was to have been broadcast to Toledo and 450 sites around the world, after an online petition urged him to denounce the host church's stance on homosexuality.

The petition on change.org states that nondenominational Willow Creek Church has a "long anti-gay history" and that it has "practiced dangerous conversion therapy to 'cure' people of their sexual orientation."

As of Thursday evening, 782 people had signed the petition protesting Mr. Schultz's participation in the Leadership Summit 2011, a two-day event broadcast by satellite to 150,000 viewers in 40 nations. Locally, about 1,100 people paid up to $269 each to attend the conference, which began Thursday and continues Friday, at CedarCreek Church's campuses in Perrysburg Township and West Toledo.

Mr. Schultz was one of 13 speakers scheduled at the summit, which has featured such prominent leaders as former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bishop T.D. Jakes, former NFL coach Tony Dungy, and U2 singer Bono.

The Rev. Bill Hybels, founding pastor of Willow Creek Church, announced Mr. Schultz's cancellation Thursday and urged conference participants to buy a Starbucks coffee and post a comment on Starbucks' Web site urging Mr. Schultz to speak at the summit next year.

He said he met with Mr. Schultz, who cited the online petition for his withdrawal, and agreed to let him out of the contract without penalty.

The Rev. Lee Powell, senior pastor of CedarCreek Church, which draws 8,500 people a week, called Mr. Schultz's decision to cancel "stupid" and said he will have a hard time buying any Starbucks products. He said he plans to "sit back and see how Starbucks handles all this" before supporting the coffee company.

The online petition said Mr. Schultz's decision to speak at Willow Creek was "unacceptable" and urged him to "at the very least, issue an immediate statement denouncing the church's anti-gay practices and beliefs."

Mr. Schultz, 58, joined Starbucks Corp. in 1982 when the company had five stores, and under his leadership the company has expanded to 17,000 locations worldwide.

Mr. Schultz was to speak about leadership principles drawn from his new book, Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life Without Losing Its Soul.

The petition on change.org was created by Asher Huey of Washington, with a note stating that Willow Creek formerly was a member of Exodus International, a Christian organization "that seeks to 'cure' homosexuality through dangerous conversion therapy."

It said that Willow Creek has "split ways with the group, but in doing so stated that it wasn't a change in belief but a change in focus."

Change.org posts dozens of online petitions addressing a wide array of issues including gay rights, the environment, and opposition to human trafficking.

Mr. Hybels, who started the 20,000-member Willow Creek Church 35 years ago, said Mr. Schultz's slot will be filled by Pat Lencioni, an author who has spoken at the Leadership Summit three previous times.

Gina Woods, director of executive communications for Starbucks Coffee Company, said by email Thursday night that "I can only confirm that Howard will not be speaking at the event."

Contact David Yonke at: dyonke@theblade.com or 419-724-6154.



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