Target Sues Gay Marriage Activists For Campaigning Outside Store

03/25/2011 04:23 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

SAN DIEGO -- A judge said Friday he would issue a ruling next week in a lawsuit filed by Target Corp. against a pro-gay marriage group to make it stop canvassing outside the retailer's San Diego County stores.

The suit alleges the activists are driving away customers by cornering them and talking about gay marriage.

Rights advocates say the legal battle between Target and Canvass For A Cause could further strain the retailer's relations with the gay and lesbian community.

Target previously made a $150,000 donation to a business group backing a Minnesota Republican candidate opposed to gay marriage.

Minnesota-based Target insisted it remained committed to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and its lawsuit has nothing to do with the political agenda of the organization.

During a court hearing Friday in San Diego, Target attorney David McDowell told Judge Jeffrey Barton that the solicitors are on private property, and Target has the right to enforce its policy against solicitors.

"The question is Target's property right and its right to exclude," McDowell told Barton.

The group tries to collect signatures and donations in support of gay marriage.

Barton had asked McDowell why the company did not present testimony from customers complaining about the activists. McDowell said Target could get such testimony if needed, but it was not needed since Target just wants to exercise its right to ask people to leave its property.

Bryan W. Pease, the attorney for Canvass For A Cause, said Target does not have that right. He told the judge the outside area surrounding stores in shopping centers like Target have been considered by the courts to be public domain for free speech.

He argued that Target is taking action because it does not agree with the group's message about gay marriage.

Barton said he will issue a written ruling by the end of next week.

Target says it has taken similar action against a number of organizations representing a variety of causes. It alleges in the lawsuit that activists with the San Diego group harass customers by cornering them near front entrances of stores and debating with them about their views on 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.