Anthony Musa, left, and Brianna Pantillione join nearly 250 gay rights supporters protesting SB1062 at the Arizona Capitol, Friday, Feb. 21, 2014, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)


Gov. Jan Brewer's veto Wednesday of Arizona's controversial SB1062, which would have allowed businesses to decline service to customers on religious grounds, is likely to be touted by some as a sign of evolution in the Republican party. The bill, which many saw as discriminatory to gays and lesbians, was rejected by a conservative governor, the state's Republican senators and three Republican state lawmakers who initially voted for it.

Yet the defeat of the bill in Arizona also revealed an evolution of sorts for Corporate America. Companies lined up against the legislation, with major corporations including American Airlines, Apple and Intel announcing their opposition. The NFL said it was following the situation closely, raising questions of whether it might pull the 2015 Super Bowl in Arizona if the bill became law. And dozens of local and national companies signed a letter to Gov. Brewer or made their own statements of opposition, citing the damage it would do to the local economy, their ability to seek the most talented workers, and tourism in the state.

"If passed into law, these proposals would cause significant harm to many people and will result in job losses," read part of a statement from Delta Air Lines. "They would also violate Delta's core values of mutual respect and dignity."

While such economic arguments coming from business leaders may not be much of a surprise, their vocal and highly public role in the debate still represents a big shift — and a welcome one — from just a few years ago. For years, business leaders have eschewed social issues, grasping onto neutral stances to avoid criticism from shareholders or customer groups.

But at least on the topic of gay rights, that's changed substantially in recent years, with more corporate leaders wading in to the public debate. "What's changed even in the last five years is that business has gone from implementing policies aimed at their own employees to turning around and weighing in forcefully on public policy beyond the four walls of their business," says Deena Fidas, the director of the workplace equality program at Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group for gay rights. "They've become legislative and social change agents." 

For instance, says Fidas, fewer than five businesses publicly came forward as supporters of same-sex marriage rights when Proposition 8, a ballot measure which would ban gay marriage in California, was up for a vote back in 2008. Yet last year, hundreds of large corporations signed a brief in favor of overturning the Defense of Marriage Act.

Another example: It was just two years ago that Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein became the Human Rights Campaign's first national corporate spokesman for same-sex marriage, a move that was called courageous by some at the time. Today, it's hard to believe it would register much of a blip on the surprise meter.

Meanwhile, Fidas says, the number of large U.S. employers that support the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), a federal bill that passed the Senate in November and would prohibit workplace discrimination against gay and transgender employees, has risen substantially. Fidas estimates that five years ago the HRC's Business Coalition for Workplace Fairness (a group of companies that publicly support ENDA) had less than 70 members. Today, the membership list has grown to 120.

Obviously, the change in Corporate America mirrors the rapidly evolving shift in Americans' attitudes toward gay rights. Business leaders don't want to appear out of touch with their customers, a majority of whom now support same-sex marriage. And as a growing number of state judges strike down bans on gay marriage — including one in Texas on Wednesday — many companies surely sense that staying mum on gay-rights issues would not only hit their bottom lines, but would put them on the wrong side of history.

Fidas says advocates now also include companies from a broader range of industries and geographic areas. "Corporate support is no longer a coastal phenomenon," she says. "We're seeing heartland and manufacturing companies making the case for business equality" far more often than they did five years ago.

In Indiana, for instance, Eli Lilly and Cummins made donations of $100,000 each to a campaign supporting the constitutionality of same-sex unions. In an interview with Bloomberg last month, Eli Lilly's senior director of corporate responsibility, Robert Smith, said "it was important for us to lead. If we didn’t do it, who would?”

That question, ultimately, is the right one. Corporate leaders may have self-interested reasons for promoting gay rights. But as we saw in Arizona, they are also in a unique position to create bridges between political parties and to be voices not only for the rights of their own employees and customers, but for everyone.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

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