Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson called for changes to the state’s religious objection measure amid a backlash from businesses and gay rights groups. (Danny Johnston/Associated Press)

“Where the f— are the gay groups?!”

That was the forceful question posed during a casual conversation with a gay rights leader yesterday about the hell being unleashed on Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) and his expansive religious-freedom law. That’s the new statute that would make it possible for a private business to claim religious belief as a shield against a discrimination lawsuit brought by gays and lesbians. My tart-tongued friend had a point. While I’ve seen representatives of gay groups speaking out on this, one thing has been clear from the get-go: The outrage directed at the Hoosier State and others is being led by big business. And that’s awesome.

In a terrific column yesterday, Catherine Rampell wrote about how “the economics of discrimination seems to have been flipped on its head.” In the past, if the employers, employees and customers of a business “had a taste for discrimination” then that business had every incentive to condone it. It wasn’t bad for business. Today, the dynamic has changed. “If … firms feared that customers would punish them for inclusiveness,” Rampell writes, “today firms fear customers will instead punish them for exclusiveness.”

Here’s another way the dynamic has changed. The loudest voices demanding integration of lunch counters and other public accommodations in the 1960s belonged to African Americans. Through courage and moral conviction they changed hearts and minds on civil rights and racial equality. Today, in this current fight over equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans, what we are seeing is business not so much acting out of fear, but acting out of conscience.

“Men and women have fought and died fighting to protect our country’s founding principles of freedom and equality,” wrote Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook against the Indiana law. “We owe it to them, to each other and to our future to continue to fight with our words and our actions to make sure we protect those ideals.” Apple is ranked No. 5 on the Fortune 500 list, is worth $700 billion and has $178 billion in cash on hand.

“This is just plain wrong and … and we will not stand for it,” said Arne Sorenson, president of Marriott International, of the Indiana law. “[T]he notion that you can tell businesses somehow that they are free to discriminate against people based on who they are is madness.” Marriott is No. 219 on the Fortune 500 list. Its executive chairman, Bill Marriott, is a devout Mormon.


(Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press)

And after a religious-freedom bill passed the state House yesterday on its way to the desk of Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R), Wal-Mart Chief Executive Doug McMillon urged a veto. “Every day, in our stores, we see firsthand the benefits diversity and inclusion have on our associates, customers and communities we serve,” McMillon said in a statement. “It all starts with our core basic belief of respect for the individual.”

Wal-Mart, headquartered in Bentonville, Ark., ranks No. 1 on the Fortune 500 list and is the largest private employer in Arkansas and in the United States. Surely this explains why Hutchinson announced today that he would not sign the religious freedom bill on his desk until it was changed to reflect the federal version. But the governor said he got pushback at home. “My son, Seth, signed the petition asking me, dad, the governor, to veto this bill,” he said.

Yes, other business leaders, such as at Angie’s List and at Salesforce, have also made their displeasure known. They didn’t do it because of public pressure from LGBT rights groups. They all did this of their own volition. So, “Where the f— are the gay groups?” For once, they are following as the allies they’ve spent decades cultivating take the lead in a fight for their rights and dignity without having to be asked.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj