By Patricia Reaney and Eric Kelsey
NEW YORK/LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The suspension of TV personality Phil Robertson of A&E's hit reality show "Duck Dynasty" for making anti-gay comments sparked a politically charged debate about religion and tolerance on Thursday and cast doubt on the series' future.
The controversy put A&E, part-owned by Walt Disney Co, in the awkward position of coming up with a palatable response possibly to the detriment of its most popular show, which is scheduled to begin its fifth season on January 15.
Robertson, the patriarch of the backwater Louisiana clan on the reality show about hunting, fishing and domestic squabbles, was put on indefinite "hiatus" by A&E for his remarks to GQ magazine characterizing homosexuality as sinful behavior.
"Start with homosexual behavior and just morph from there," Robertson, 67, said when asked what is sinful. "Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men."
A&E, a joint cable network venture of privately held Hearst Corp and Disney, said it was disappointed after reading Robertson's remarks, which it added were his personal views and did not reflect those of the network.
"The network has placed Phil under hiatus from filming indefinitely," it said in a statement.
A&E was not immediately available to comment beyond the statement.
The Robertson family posted a statement on their Duck Commander website Thursday night saying "we cannot imagine the show going forward without our patriarch at the helm."
"We are in discussions with A&E to see what that means for the future of 'Duck Dynasty'."
"Duck Dynasty," one of cable TV's top non-sports programs that has turned its bearded stars into celebrities, has spawned hundreds of merchandise items sold at retailers such as Target and Wal-Mart, from sporting goods and apparel to camouflage reclining furniture.
Its themed merchandise has brought in some $400 million in sales, according to Forbes magazine.
That figure, along with the show's top-dog status at A&E, shows that the network believes Robertson's comments were more serious than the financial hit it might take, said Craig Detweiler, a professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, who specializes in media and religion.
"It's fascinating to see A&E in a sense pulling a plug on their most profitable franchise," he said. "You see them choosing politics over economics."
CONSERVATIVES PUSH BACK
Reaction to Robertson's comments was swift from across the political spectrum with gay rights group GLAAD condemning the remarks while conservative politicians defended Robertson.
Former U.S. Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, both leapt to the star's side, saying he was a victim of political correctness.
"Free speech is an endangered species: Those 'intolerants' hatin' & taking on Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing personal opinion take on us all," tweeted Palin.
Jindal, also a Republican and possible 2016 U.S. presidential candidate, criticized A&E's reaction and described Robertson and his family, who turned their animal-call company Duck Commander into a hunting industry leader, as "great citizens of the State of Louisiana."
"The politically correct crowd is tolerant of all viewpoints, except those they disagree with," Jindal said in a statement.
"You can see your politics whether you see this as an issue of hate speech or free speech," Detweiler said. "What you see is conservatives pushing back on social pluralism."
Petitions started at Change.org and by Christian consumer group Faith Driven Consumer have each received more than 50,000 signatures demanding Robertson return to the show.
The Robertson family admitted that "Phil's unfiltered comments to the reporter were coarse," but they are grounded in the teachings of the Bible. They called the hiatus "for expressing his faith" a disappointment.
Nevertheless, the series' future could be in doubt unless Robertson recants, said Mark Pasetsky, a celebrity branding expert and former editor of OK! magazine.
"It would be really difficult for any corporation to back this show on an on-going basis," Pasetsky said. "He has to apologize specifically for what he said."
'A LITTLE TOO MUCH REALITY'
It is also not the first time Robertson and the network have clashed over religion. In April, Robertson said he had confronted producers about editing out the word "Jesus" from some of the prayers recited on the show.
A&E's quick move to suspend Robertson indefinitely stands in contrast to cable channels The Food Network and MSNBC, which both waited days before parting with Southern food doyenne Paula Deen and actor Alec Baldwin, respectively, after they both admitted to using slurs.
It was unclear how "Duck Dynasty" would proceed without its patriarch. It drew 11.8 million viewers in August for the debut of its fourth season, a record for a cable nonfiction series, according to A&E.
(Editing by Mary Milliken and Eric Walsh)