August 3, 2016 at 3:19 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
LGBT legal group criticized for taking Walmart donation
Walmart, gay news, Washington Blade

An LGBT legal group is facing criticism for accepting a Walmart donation. (Photo by Bobby P.; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

An LGBT legal group is facing criticism for accepting a $30,000 donation from retail giant Walmart to host a convention this week in D.C. for LGBT attorneys.

The LGBT Bar Association, which hosts the annual Lavender Law Conference & Career Fair, lists Walmart on its website as a “silver level” donor to the event, which indicates the company contributed $30,000.

The 28th annual conference was set to take place between Thursday and Saturday at the Renaissance Washington Hotel and more than 1,300 people were expected.

The criticism over the donation is tied to a pending class-action lawsuit against Walmart filed by Jacqueline Cote, a lesbian employee of the company who was denied spousal health insurance benefits for her late wife, Diana Smithson, who died of ovarian cancer in March.

Until Jan. 1, 2014, when Walmart ended its ban on health benefits for its employees’ same-sex spouses, Cote and Smithson accrued more than $175,000 in unpaid medical bills. The lawsuit filed on behalf of Cote and other Walmart employees calls on the company to compensate them for damages they have suffered due to the denied benefits.

Jerame Davis, director of the LGBT labor group Pride at Work, said the notion any LGBT group would accept money from Walmart “is incredibly disappointing.”

“This is a company that is not only known to have a history of questionable employment practices, but they actively denied over 1,200 current and former LGBTQ employees spousal health benefits,” Davis said.

Davis accused Walmart of “trying to paper over its anti-LGBTQ past” and called on the company to make Cote and other employees aggrieved by its policy “whole instead.”

Assailing the Human Rights Campaign, Davis said the nation’s largest LGBT group has created “confusion” by giving the company a “horribly inflated score” on its Corporate Equality Index.

“But it is indeed surreal that a group of LGBTQ lawyers would take money from Walmart while that corporation’s LGBTQ discrimination lawsuit is pending through the courts and nary a plaintiff has seen a dime of recompense,” Davis said.

Pride at Work is an arm of the labor group AFL-CIO, which has come to blows with Walmart over its practices for its 2.2 million employees nationwide. Allegations against Walmart have included that it pays low wages, offers inadequate health care and fosters poor working conditions and anti-union policies.

The latest Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index scorecard gives Walmart a score of “90” out of 100, awarding the company points for LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination policies, offering partner benefits and firm-wide competency programs, but deducting points for not affording transition-related care for transgender employees.

D’Arcy Kemnitz, executive director of the LGBT Bar Association, said her group doesn’t comment on pending litigation, nor on the past, current or future benefits policies of any of its sponsoring organizations.

“Walmart is sending dozens of LGBT and allied attorneys to Lavender Law as part of their sponsorship,” Kemnitz said. “While here, those lawyers will be attendees and participants in the nation’s best LGBT legal education opportunity: Lavender Law.”

Kemnitz said Walmart has “specifically requested” its sponsorship funds go directly to support student attendees at the conference.

“The LGBT Bar is always happy to defray the cost of attendance for students — they are the future of the legal profession,” Kemnitz said.

The New England-based Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of Cote, declined to comment on the Walmart donation, citing ongoing proceedings in the case.

Walmart didn’t respond to the Washington Blade’s request Wednesday to comment on criticism over its donation to the LGBT Bar Association for the Lavender Law Conference.

Last year, amid a media frenzy over “religious freedom” measures in Arkansas and Indiana seen to enable anti-LGBT discrimination, Walmart issued a statement against the bill in Arkansas, where the company is headquartered. Subsequently, Gov. Asa Hutchinson rejected the measure and called on the legislature to provide him a proposal that mirrored the federal religious freedom statute, which he signed into law.

“Every day in our stores, we see firsthand the benefits diversity and inclusion have on our associates, customers and communities we serve,” Walmart CEO Doug McMillan said in a statement posted to Twitter. “It all starts with our core basic belief of respect for the individual. Today’s passage of HB1228 threatens to undermine the spirit of inclusion present throughout the state of Arkansas and does not reflect the values we proudly uphold.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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