EHarmony.com Inc.'s recent decision to provide a same-sex dating service has provoked a backlash among some in the conservative Christian community, who were once the company's most loyal supporters and reliable customers.
The reaction stems from Pasadena-based eHarmony's announcement two weeks ago that it would settle a New Jersey discrimination lawsuit by creating CompatiblePartners.net, a same-sex dating site. EHarmony and its born-again Christian founder, Neil Clark Warren, had resisted offering such a service for years.
EHarmony officials declined to discuss at length the decision to offer a same-sex service, citing a pending class-action lawsuit in California comparable to the New Jersey case. The company limited its comments to an e-mail response, in which Antone Johnson, eHarmony's vice president of legal affairs, wrote: "In the end, the company decided it was best for our business and customers to move beyond this legal dispute in order to focus full time on helping our users find long-term relationships."
Warren's stand against same-sex dating and the close ties he cultivated with the conservative Christian movement in eHarmony's early years endeared him to the religious right. They helped make eHarmony, with more than 20 million registered users over its history, one of the top three dating sites on the Internet alongside Match.com LLC and Yahoo Inc.'s YahooPersonals.com.
But some of the same conservative groups that used to praise the company are now criticizing it for what they see as a betrayal. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, called eHarmony's decision "distressing and damaging" and asked members to contact eHarmony to express disappointment.
Peter LaBarbera, president of Chicago-based Americans for Truth About Homosexuality, said eHarmony "sold out faith-based businesses" and added that he would encourage Christian singles to turn to other dating Web sites such as ChristianCafe.com and SinglesofFaith.com.
LaBarbera said he believes that some Christians will abandon eHarmony, noting, "It's created a huge controversy, and that can't help business." EHarmony is a major player in the online personals market, which was worth just less than $1 billion this year and is projected to grow to $1.6 billion by 2013, said David Card, an analyst at Jupiter Research.
Joe Tracy, publisher of Online Dating Magazine, said it's too early to tell whether eHarmony's recent action will dent its market share. But he said the company is in a bind: It will have to contend with a disgruntled base of customers, while trying to win over gays and lesbians who felt shunned by eHarmony for years.
"EHarmony's on the out with both groups right now," Tracy said.
'A tough road'
Since its founding in 2000, eHarmony has long had ties to Christian groups as a result of Warren billing the site as a value-oriented service geared to producing long-lasting marriages.
Warren also built relationships with conservative figures such as James Dobson, founder of traditional-minded Focus on the Family, which published several of Warren's books. Warren has said that after 10 eHarmony couples were featured on the "Focus on the Family" radio program in 2002, the site gained more than 100,000 registrants.
Also, Warren's insistence that eHarmony would not offer a same-sex dating service earned him admiration among conservative Christians. But it drew the ire of gays, lesbians and their supporters.
In March 2005, a gay man in New Jersey sued eHarmony, claiming that the company's policy constituted discrimination against gays and lesbians. EHarmony agreed to settle the suit Nov. 19 by creating the CompatiblePartners site. Terms of the settlement require that eHarmony offer the service for two years.
In the past, Warren has said that eHarmony would not offer a same-sex service because the company's patented compatibility formula that it uses to match registrants was designed with heterosexual couples in mind.
In an interview with the Business Journal in 2007, eHarmony Chief Executive Gregory Waldorf also characterized it as a business decision.
"We have a lot of things to go after and the gay community is not a market we're going to pursue and that's it," Waldorf said.
Now, eHarmony will have to reconcile its formerly categorical stance with its new service and compete with sites like Match and PlanetOut Inc.'s Gay.com, which have catered to the gay and lesbian communities for years.
"It would be hard for any dating service that's just starting out now because you have players that are well established, and eHarmony isn't coming from a place of neutrality," said David Paisley, senior projects manager at Community Marketing Inc., a firm that studies marketing in the gay and lesbian communities. "It's going to be a tough road."
At least one of eHarmony's competitors, Match, has been exploiting eHarmony's stance to boost market share. The day eHarmony announced it would provide a same-sex dating service, Match Chief Executive Thomas Enraght-Moony called CompatiblePartners a forced decision that wouldn't allow eHarmony clients to find "nonjudgmental love."
It isn't the first time Match has gone after eHarmony on the same-sex issue. Last year, the company launched a "Rejected by eHarmony" ad campaign, one of which showcased a gay person. After the campaign, Match had an 80 percent increase in membership, said Mandy Ginsberg, general manager of Match and sister site Chemistry.com.
Meanwhile, eHarmony will have to smooth things over with former users like J.P. Duffy, media director for the Family Research Council.
Duffy joined eHarmony in early 2006 because of its sterling reputation among Christians for forging successful marriages. And it didn't disappoint: Within three months, Duffy met the woman who would become his wife.
During their wedding service, the newlyweds extolled the virtues of eHarmony and urged others to try it. Four of Duffy's friends have since met their spouses through the site.
Now, Duffy said he and his wife both feel betrayed.
"EHarmony's reputation, particularly in the Christian community, was very strong. And I think that more than anything was responsible for its success," he said. "Now I worry that the company I knew and loved is fading out of existence."
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