Long known for promoting its image as a family friendly business, Wal-Mart has broadened its own definition of “immediate family” to include some same-sex couples.

According to news reports, Wal-Mart disclosed its statement of ethics last week in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing. The statement bars workers from using confidential information or supplier contacts for the benefit of immediate family members.

The revised code says: “Immediate family members include (whether by birth, adoption, marriage or Domestic Partnership or Civil Union, if recognized by your state or other local law) your spouse, children, parents, siblings, mothers- and fathers-in-law, sons- and daughters-in-law and brothers- and sisters-in-law.”

A Wal-Mart spokesman told CNN the revised policy would apply to same-sex unions “in geographical areas where those relationships are officially recognized.”

A company official quoted by the Associated Press declined to say if the change would affect employee benefits, or whether it meant Wal-Mart was taking a position on the issue of same-sex marriage or civil unions.

The new policy drew praise, however, from the nation’s largest homosexual-rights group.

“We hope that with equal responsibility come equal benefits,” said Daryl Herrschaft of the Human Rights Campaign.

“We are encouraged by this sign showing America’s heartland employer understands same-sex couples share the responsibilities that come with being a family,” Herrschaf said. “It’s only appropriate for these families to also receive the same benefits as others.”

The Southern Baptist Convention in 1997 boycotted the Disney Co., in part for providing healthcare to same-sex partners of employees.

Today about 45 percent of Fortune 500 companies offer healthcare benefits to employees’ same-sex domestic partners or spouses, according to the Human Rights Campaign. That number has increased tenfold since 1995. Wal-Mart competitors Costco Wholesale, Best Buy and Home Depot all offer domestic-partner health benefits.

United Press International said Wal-Mart doesn’t extend health-insurance benefits to its workers’ same-sex partners unless required to do so by law.

The nation’s largest private employer with 1.2 million workers, Wal-Mart has worked to uphold its image as a family store.

Last Christmas, Wal-Mart came to the rescue after Target announced it would no longer allow Salvation Army bell ringers to stand outside its stores, prompting a boycott call against Target by at least one group of conservative Christian clergy.

The Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club Foundation responded by offering to match up to $1 million in donations given at its stores in the week before Christmas, helping the Army to surpass the previous year’s giving by more than $2 million.

The chain was criticized by the left for censorship and holding a double standard in 1996 for refusing to sell music CDs with warning labels for explicit language, while not banning gun sales.

In 2003 Wal-Mart stopped selling three men’s magazines that often displayed partially dressed women on their covers.

Also in 2003, Wal-Mart expanded its non-discrimination policy to include sexual orientation. That prompted the conservative group Focus on the Family to protest that the company had “surrendered to a small handful of homosexual activists” by subjecting all of its employees to “‘sensitivity training’ on homosexual issues.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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