More layoffs at Focus on the Family

Focus on the Family founder and president James Dobson. (Photo/Focus on the Family)
Focus on the Family founder and president James Dobson. (Photo/Focus on the Family)
UPDATE: Focus on the Family announced this afternoon that 202 jobs will be cut companywide — an estimated 20 percent of its workforce. Initial reports bring the total number of remaining employees to around 950.

Focus on the Family is poised to announce major layoffs to its Colorado Springs-based ministry and media empire today. The cutbacks come just weeks after the group pumped more than half a million dollars into the successful effort to pass a gay-marriage ban in California.

Critics are holding up the layoffs, which come just two months after the organization’s last round of dismissals, as a sad commentary on the true priorities of the ministry.

“If I were their membership I would be appalled,” said Mark Lewis, a longtime Colorado Springs activist who helped organize a Proposition 8 protest in Colorado Springs on Saturday. “That [Focus on the Family] would spend any money on anything that’s obviously going to get blocked in the courts is just sad. [Prop. 8] is guaranteed to lose, in the long run it doesn’t have a chance — it’s just a waste of money.”

In all, Focus pumped $539,000 in cash and another $83,000 worth of non-monetary support into the measure to overturn a California Supreme Court ruling that allowed gays and lesbians to marry in that state. The group was the seventh-largest donor to the effort in the country. The cash contributions are equal to the salaries of 19 Coloradans earning the 2008 per capita income of $29,133.

In addition Elsa Prince, the auto parts heiress and longtime funder of conservative social causes who sits on the Focus on the Family board, contributed another $450,000 to Prop. 8.

“They should do more with their half-million dollars than spending it to collect signatures to take the rights away from a class of people,” said Fred Karger, the founder of the anti-Prop 8 group Californians Against Hate. “I think it’s wrong and it’s hurtful to so many Americans.”

In addition to promoting socially conservative issues such opposition to abortion and gay rights, and supporting abstinence-only education, the evangelical Christian ministry is a purveyor of Christian books, CDs and DVDs. Two months ago, citing Wal-Mart and online retailers as having cut into its product market, Focus announced that 46 employees would be laid off from its distribution department. Late Friday, Focus spokesman Gary Schneeberger confirmed that more layoffs are in store, but said the ministry will not release details until Monday afternoon. Schneeberger hinted that some programs may be eliminated entirely, but declined to elaborate.

“We’re going to need to talk to our own family first,” he said. “We need to respect the people who are affected.”

Schneeberger also refused to discuss the funding priorities that Focus made this fall, including pumping money and in-kind contributions into Proposition 8.

This is the third year that Focus has laid off employees due to budget cuts. In its heyday, the ministry, which relocated to Colorado Springs from Arcadia, Calif., in 1991, employed more than 1,500 people. Many of those employees worked in mailroom and line assembly jobs, processing so much incoming and outgoing correspondences that the U.S. Postal Service gave Focus its own ZIP code.

In September 2005, nearly 80 employees were reassigned or laid off in an effort to trim millions of dollars from its 2006 budget. In addition, 83 open positions were not filled in the layoff, which included eliminating some of the ministry’s programs. At the time, Focus employed 1,342 full-time employees.

“To the extent that we can place them within the ministry, we will try to do that,” said then-spokesman Paul Hetrick. “Most of them will not be able to be placed.”

In September 2007, amid a reported $8 million in budget shortfalls, Focus on the Family laid off another 30 employees; 15 more were reassigned within the company. Most of the layoffs were from Focus’ constituent response services department (i.e. the mailroom).

At the time, Schneeberger, who had replaced Hetrick, said that giving was actually up by $1 million during the fiscal year. However, a very “aggressive” budget goal of $150 million did not materialize.

In a statement issued this September, marking the end of the ministry’s fiscal year, Chief Operating Officer Glenn Williams weighed in on the additional layoffs of 46 people.

“It is certainly heartbreaking that in this case fulfilling that duty means having to say goodbye to some members of our Focus family, but industry realities really leave us no alternative,” he note in his statement. “We are accountable to our donors to spend their money in the most cost-effective and productive manner possible.”

But Lewis, the Colorado Springs activist, wonders whether the families who donate to the nonprofit ministry, realize where their funds really end up.

“Seriously, I would imagine their supporters have got to be asking the question about whether their church is really practicing their theology.”

For Lewis, who is straight, the issue boils down to the significance of targeting a class of citizens for exclusion, at the expense of the families that the ministry could be helping — in this case their own employees.

Lewis likened Proposition 8 to Colorado’s Amendment 2, the 1992 anti-gay measure that was designed to prohibit gays and lesbians from seeking legal protections. Colorado voters approved the measure, which was marketed by proponents, including Focus on the Family, as an effort to prohibit gays and lesbians from seeking “special rights.” The U.S. Supreme Court stuck down the measure as unconstitutional four years later.

“You can’t make homosexuals second class citizens — we’ve learned that already,” Lewis said. “People will look back on this and see how absurd it is.”

Days before this year’s election, Focus founder James Dobson appeared at a closing rally at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego to rally the anti-gay troops.

Karger of Californians Against Hate, termed the rally a “big bust.” Organizers promised that more than 70,000 supporters would show up; the final tally was close to 10,000, he said.

Yet three days later, California voters approved the measure with 52 percent of the vote. While the measure will certainly head back to court, California has become the 31st state in the country to pass measures that define marriage as being between a man and woman only. In all, Proposition 8 has proven to be the most expensive social issue in the country, with more than $73 million pumped into the cause from both sides. One of the larger contributors to the anti-Prop. 8 efforts was Colorado gay philanthropist Tim Gill, who contributed $720,000 to oppose the measure.

“I’m very disturbed by organizations from out of state like Focus on the Family,” Karger said. “They came in early to make sure the measure got on ballot; they’ve got muscle and they are out to hurt a lot of people and destroy a lot of lives.”