A year after Corporate America rallied against legislation in Indiana that would have allowed business owners to refuse to serve same-sex couples on religious grounds, a growing number of companies and CEOs are speaking out again.
This time, they're taking aim at a bill in Georgia that passed the state's legislature Wednesday and is headed to the desk of Gov. Nathan Deal (R). The bill, which has undergone several changes, says faith-based organizations can refuse to provide certain services to those who violate their "sincerely held religious belief." It also says faith-based groups could not be forced to hire or retain employees whose beliefs are contrary to their own and that the government must prove a "compelling governmental interest" before it interferes with a person's exercise of religion.
Business leaders and major corporations urging Gov. Deal to veto it, threatening to pull business from the state, or criticizing it as out of step with the times. This time, they include both high-profile leaders sounding off on Twitter, as well as large coordinated groups of businesses that have formed in opposition to the bill.
Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff, who was active in the fight against similar legislation in Indiana a year ago, has been among the most vocal, leading the business outcry against the bill and tweeting about it for weeks. “Once again Georgia is trying to pass laws that make it legal to discriminate. When will this insanity end?” he wrote early Thursday. Back in February, he tweeted a poll asking his 207,000 followers if the company should move an upcoming conference from the state if the bill passes.
On Thursday, his company issued a statement threatening just that. If the bill becomes law, the statement read, “Salesforce will have to reduce investments in Georgia, including moving the Salesforce Connections conference to a state that provides a more welcoming environment for the LGBTQ community,” referring to a conference in early May in Atlanta.
Other companies have weighed in, too. On Friday afternoon, Apple issued a statement saying “our stores and our company are open to everyone, regardless of where they come from, what they look like, how they worship or who they love. We urge Gov. Deal to veto the discriminatory legislation headed to his desk and send a clear message that Georgia’s future is one of inclusion, diversity and continued prosperity."
The company's CEO, Tim Cook, came out publicly as gay in 2014 and is currently engaged in a high-stakes battle with the government over privacy issues. He wrote an op-ed about the Indiana legislation last year, saying such bills "rationalize injustice by pretending to defend something many of us hold dear."
Other CEOs have made comments on Twitter either agreeing with Benioff or weighing in with their own opposition. Unilever CEO Paul Polman tweeted that he fully supports Benioff: “Great leadership once more in standing up for what’s right.” Michael Dell said on Twitter he was proud his SecureWorks subsidiary had “joined against Georgia bill that shields discrimination against gays.” Intel CEO Brian Krzanich wrote on Twitter that “we oppose discrimination in all forms. @GovernorDeal do the right thing and Veto House Bill 757. Proud to be an #LGBTQAlly.”
Meanwhile, the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce has spoken out against the bill, saying it “jeopardizes our convention and tourism businesses,” and a coalition of 480 businesses called Georgia Prospers was formed in early January “dedicated to the principle of nondiscrimination as a key to building and maintaining an economically competitive state.” It opposes the current version of the bill, which Deal has until May 3 to decide whether to sign; in addition to Google, Salesforce.com and Marriott, the coalition includes small businesses and local heavyweights such as Delta, Home Depot and Coca-Cola.
That sort of early coordinated action marks something of a shift in the corporate response to such bills, says Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group for gay rights. When Arizona debated a similar bill, she says, “businesses really did not speak out at all until after the bill was passed and it was on the governor's desk.” In Indiana, she says, there were early voices from prominent Indiana-based corporations, but broader engagement didn’t come until later.
“In Georgia businesses were engaged much more so in advance,” she says. “I think they’ve seen what happened a little bit last year, and really were much more forcefully in place and ready to respond to whatever — negative or positive — cropped up in the legislation.”
Supporters of the Georgia bill say it protects religious organizations, and the bill includes a clause that it cannot be used for discrimination that's prohibited under federal or state law. But Warbelow says that clause and the recent inclusion of language that requires the government to prove a “compelling governmental interest” before interfering with a person's exercise of religion is concerning.
“Sexual orientation and gender identity are not explicitly included in Georgia state law or federal law” as a protected characteristic, she says.
Jason Rahlan, a communications director for HRC, says companies’ willingness to speak out about such bills has come as corporations have quietly but dramatically improved their policies and benefits for gay and lesbian employees.
As a result, companies that speak out on behalf of gay rights fit naturally with their internal practices, says Paul Argenti, a professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business who studies corporate communication. “I think it’s kind of a no-brainer,” he says. “You most likely have a non-discrimination policy in place, why wouldn’t you support it publicly by acting in favor of what most people would agree to anyways?”
In other words, Argenti says, as public acceptance of same-sex marriage grows, it not only makes sense for business leaders to look after employees’ rights, but there’s less risk in speaking out. Data from the Pew Research Center last year found that 55 percent of Americans, and 70 percent of millennials, support same-sex marriage.
“It’s not a hard position to take,” Argenti says, noting there are more and more companies taking stands on issue — from tobacco sales to gay rights — that would have been unusual a decade or more ago. “You’re going to see more of it.”
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