Claiming that they have been insulted by judgmental employees of the Eighth Street Hobby Lobby, a group of gay men and women have cried foul over shabby treatment and are even boycotting the craft store.
The Westside store's general manager, meanwhile, maintains that none of his employees would ever discriminate against customers -- straight or gay. The Oklahoma-based chain store's owners have a strong fundamentalist religious philosophy and operate their organization with stated Christian principles.
But Colorado Springs resident Jeannie Tharp said she was insulted when she went to the store to buy some beads that were on sale. It was right around the time of August's Gay Pride Week, and Tharp said she was wearing a string of rainbow-colored beads in her long hair. When she asked an employee where she would find the sale beads, he asked her if she was wearing rainbow-colored beads because she was gay. Tharp was stunned but acknowledged she was.
"He said, 'I won't help you,'" Tharp said. "It was like he knew what they were for, and he was just getting confirmation.
"I just was dumbfounded. I had never experienced that in my life."
Aghast, Tharp found her beads and then told a store manager what had transpired. But the manager merely said, " 'Oh well,' like what was he supposed to do about it," she said.
"So I won't go back there, and I'm not the only one. For some reason, they just don't like gays."
'We don't serve your type'
Colorado Springs resident Jol Diehl, who is gay, said he knows of four couples who have been treated as suspect -- and even blatantly refused service by store employees.
Diehl said a couple he knows were recently shopping in the craft area of the store and, while looking at fabric samples, tried unsuccessfully to get help from employees. "One of the employees finally looked at them and said, 'We don't like dealing with your type here,'" he said.
After hearing similar stories from his friends, Diehl said he contacted an assistant store manager by phone two weeks ago. However, the manager dismissed the assertion as "ridiculous," Diehl said. Now he is considering organizing a boycott against the store.
"It's just the whole feeling they get that they are not wanted," Diehl said. "You want to be able to go and shop somewhere and know when you go in that particular store you are respected as a customer."
Diehl said he is aware of Hobby Lobby's strong religious dogma. As an ordained minister, he said, he preaches unconditional love.
But, he said, "it's one thing to shop somewhere, it's another thing to get beliefs shoved down your throat."
Diehl said that the manager he spoke with told him that he should write down the names of the employees the next time it happens. But that dismissal frustrated him further.
We're all human
This week, the store's general manager, Keith Meser, initially said he was aware of Diehl's complaint but dismissed the charge of discrimination as impossible.
"I know that nothing like this has ever happened," he said. "I'm wondering if they have the right store."
Meser said he and his assistant manager -- who had taken Diehl's complaint -- tried to imagine which employees could have discriminated but couldn't list any possible culprits. The issue has not been raised during any employee staff meetings, he said.
Meser said the store holds no policy against gay couples or individuals, and he sometimes sees men coming in together holding hands.
"I've seen them in the store together, and I help them," Meser said. "I even walk out to the car with them.
"They're human beings just like anything else."
However, Tharp said she also knows other gays who have been treated poorly if they enter the store with their partners. Now, she said, many of her straight friends are refusing to shop at the store in a show of solidarity. And, she said, Hobby Lobby lost a good customer when she stopped shopping there, because, as a jewelry-maker, she used to spend between $100 and $200 every month at the store.
The reported treatment -- and potential loss of business from gays -- has store manager Meser concerned.
"Without a customer, we don't have a job," he said. "There is so much competition that we'll do whatever we have to."
Biblical principles and unbeatable value
Hobby Lobby is known to be a little prudish. Three years ago, the store decided to affix decals to cover the private parts on any paintings, prints or drawings in fine art poster catalogs where the artwork contained nudity. Among the offensive artwork were posters of Michaelangelo's famous "David" and "Creation of Adam," and Botticelli's "Birth of Venus," in which the naked goddess is served up on the half-shell.
The company was founded in 1972, has grown into an arts-and-crafts conglomerate with 200 stores in 21 states -- including three in Colorado Springs. With projected sales this year of $820 million, the firm employs nearly 11,000 employees
The company also has several sister companies, including framing, real-estate, construction and advertising companies.
On its online Web site, Hobby Lobby asserts, "We believe that it is by God's grace and provision that Hobby Lobby has endured. He has been faithful in the past, we trust Him for our future."
The company's describes its "statement of purpose" as serving owners, employees and customers by:
"Honoring the Lord in all we do by operating the company in a manner consistent with biblical principles."
"Offering our customers an exceptional selection and unbeatable value.
"Serving our employees and their families by establishing a work environment and company policies which build character, strengthen individuals and nurture families."
"Providing a return on the owners' investment, sharing the Lord's blessings with our employees and investing in our community."
Store manager Meser described the company as a committed employer which is closed on Sundays to allow employees time to worship and be with their families.
"Not that many companies are willing to do that," he said. Asked whether he employs any gays or lesbians, Meser said he has no idea. The company, he said, is an equal-opportunity employer.