Thursday, April 2, 2015

Business suits up for culture wars -- April 2, 2015 column


For decades, social conservatives have blamed liberals, “the media” and Hollywood for promoting same-sex marriage and gay rights. Now they can add big business to the list.

The culture wars are back – they never went far -- and corporations are emerging as a powerful new player on behalf of  lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

“America’s business leaders recognized a long time ago that discrimination, in all its forms, is bad for business,” Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote Tuesday in an op-ed in The Washington Post.

Cook, who came out as gay last year, was among the chiefs of national and international companies as well as celebrities who criticized Indiana and its Republican governor, Mike Pence, for enacting a religious freedom law that critics saw as encouraging discrimination against the LGBT community.

Nothing focuses the mind of a state official like the threat of boycotts or trouble for local businesses, so Pence reacted when other states banned their employees from traveling to Indiana and companies and organizations threatened to cancel conventions. Angie’s List, a nationwide business-rating service, put on hold its plans for a $40 million expansion in Indianapolis.

Pence backed off the law he had previously signed, saying it needed a clarification or fix after all.

“Was I expecting this kind of backlash?” Pence said. “Heavens, no.”

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, both Democrats, quickly put out the welcome mat to businesses turned off by Indiana’s law. Virginia has a version of the religious freedom law but McAuliffe signed an executive order in 2014 with protections that Indiana lacks. It prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion and sexual orientation.

McAuliffe invited Indiana businesses “to take advantage of Virginia’s open, inclusive and thriving business environment.”

When the Arkansas legislature passed a law similar to Indiana’s, Arkansas-based Wal-Mart joined other companies in asking Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, to veto the measure.  

The bill “threatens to undermine the spirit of inclusion present throughout the state of Arkansas and does not reflect the values we proudly uphold,” Wal-Mart CEO Doug McMillon tweeted.

Hutchinson refused to sign the bill he had supported, saying it too needed work. His son Seth had signed a petition asking him to veto it, Hutchinson said, noting generational differences in opinion.

About 80 percent of people 18 to 29 think gay marriage should be valid, a Gallup poll found last year. Support declines with age, and among people 65 and older, only 42 percent support gay marriage.

Three weeks before Pence signed Indiana’s religious freedom law, 379 employers filed a friend of the court brief March 5 in the U.S. Supreme Court supporting same-sex marriage.

The firms range from cupcake bakers and plumbers to Fortune 100 companies. Some are names that the youngest Americans grew up with: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Starbucks and Twitter.

Others are traditional economic stalwarts: Aetna, Alcoa, Colgate-Palmolive, Dow Chemical, General Electric, Goldman Sachs, Marriott, Pfizer, Proctor & Gamble, United Air Lines, Verizon Communications, Wells Fargo and Xerox. And from the world of sports, the New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Rays.

The companies asked the court to affirm the rights of gay people to marry in all 50 states, but the brief did not cite social or civil rights reasons. Their legal argument was all about business and the burden the “fractured legal landscape” places on employers.

Currently, 13 states ban same-sex marriage and it is legal in 36 states and the District of Columbia. The legality of same-sex marriage is unclear in Alabama, where state and federal courts have issued conflicting orders.

Having such a patchwork of state laws “creates legal uncertainty and imposes unnecessary costs and administrative complexities on employers,” the brief said. Employers are forced to treat workers in similar circumstances differently simply because they live in different states. 

The court has scheduled oral arguments April 28 in Obergefell v. Hodges, which consolidates four same-sex marriage cases. A ruling is expected this summer.

“Allowing same-sex couples to marry improves employee morale and productivity, reduces uncertainty, and removes the wasteful administrative burdens,” the brief argues.

Everyone has a right to his or her religious beliefs, but business clearly believes the economic case for equal rights has been made. In today’s culture wars, social conservatives ignore that fact at their political peril.

© 2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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