Big corporations like Walmart, Apple, Salesforce.com and General Electric and their executives have done the right thing by calling on officials in Indiana and Arkansas to reject “religious freedom” laws designed to give businesses and religious groups legal cover should they deny service to gay couples. But the business response to these laws raises a larger issue about the role companies play in the political process. If corporate leaders are serious in opposing discrimination, they should refuse to finance the campaigns of lawmakers who want to deny civil rights to gays and other minority groups.
Corporations and their executives have long supported right-wing lawmakers who back their favored economic policies; the businesses looked the other way when those politicians pursued divisive culture-war campaigns against marginalized groups. This marriage of convenience has been extremely beneficial for both sides.
The controversy over the Indiana and Arkansas laws exposes the seams of that bargain. Some large companies are simply reacting to the change in public opinion about same-sex marriage. A majority of Americans now support it, compared with 57 percent who opposed it in 2001, according to the Pew Research Center. Corporate executives realize they cannot afford to alienate their employees and customers. Most Fortune 500 companies prohibit discrimination because of sexual orientation, and a majority provide domestic partner benefits, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
In recent days, public statements from businesses like Walmart, which is based in Arkansas, have played a big part in getting the Arkansas governor, Asa Hutchinson, and the governor of Indiana, Mike Pence, to reconsider their previous support for the religious freedom laws as passed by their Legislatures. On Thursday, lawmakers in Indiana adopted changes to clarify that its law does not authorize discrimination. And Arkansas legislators changed their law so it closely mirrors a federal law.
Just issuing corporate statements against such a law is relatively easy and actually doesn’t provide protection against discrimination. If corporations and their executives care about civil rights, they should make clear that they will not donate to or support the campaigns of politicians who back such regressive legislation. They certainly shouldn’t back lawmakers like Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, who is running for president and who has been a vocal supporter of the initial versions of the Indiana and Arkansas laws, and Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, who suggested on Wednesday that gays have it pretty good in the United States because they are not executed here as they are in Iran.
Another thing businesses can do is to make clear that they want lawmakers in all states to pass anti-discrimination protections for lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people. More than three dozen chief executives of technology companies did just that in a statement released on Wednesday.
Corporations have big and influential voices on the political stage, voices that been made bigger by Supreme Court decisions that allow businesses and executives to spend vast sums supporting political campaigns and through direct donations to candidates and political parties. If they are embarrassed by religious freedom laws, they should think carefully about the people they are helping to put into office.
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