Businesses A Powerful Force In The Fight Against "Religious Freedom" Bills

This week, businesses across the country are taking a stand against discrimination.

On April 5, Governor Phil Bryant signed HB 1523 into law, which allows a range of individuals, corporations, healthcare providers, and nonprofit organizations—including those that receive taxpayer funding to perform social services—to refuse to provide goods and services to same sex couples, single mothers, divorcees, and anyone who has had sex outside of marriage and their families. The next day, eight major corporations signed on to a letter urging the governor to repeal the bill.

“We are disappointed to see the legislature and governor’s office pass discriminatory legislation,” the letter stated. “Discrimination is wrong, and we believe it has no place in Mississippi or anywhere in our country.”

Other corporations that have publicly declared their opposition to HB 1523 include Nissan Group of North America, Tyson Food, Inc., MGM Resorts International, and Toyota.  

More news of companies making waves comes out of North Carolina. Tech giant PayPal announced this week that it would cancel plans to expand its operations in Charlotte—a direct protest aimed at the state's recent passage of anti-LGBT legislation. HB2, which sanctions discrimination, has caused an uproar throughout the state and across the country.

"The new law perpetuates discrimination and it violates the values and principles that are at the core of PayPal’s mission and culture," said Dan Schulman, President and CEO of PayPal, in a statement. "As a result, PayPal will not move forward with our planned expansion into Charlotte."

Unlike the many similar bills we track here at Protect Thy Neighbor, HB 2's discriminatory provisions are not built around the pretense of protecting religious belief. Nonetheless, the bill's passage and PayPal's announcement join a wave of "religious liberty" bills, and subsequent backlash, that have swept the nation following last year's Supreme Court marriage equality decision. One look at our Legislation Tracker shows that state legislatures all over the US have introduced (and, in some cases, have passed) bills that would allow individuals and businesses to use their religious beliefs to discriminate against others. But an increasingly vocal foe to Religious Right forces is rising in opposition to these bills—the corporation.

Take, for example, Georgia. During HB 757's journey through the legislature, businesses played a key role in drumming up national opposition bill. One of the first CEOs to speak out was Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, who marshaled other technology sector leaders into action. Another was Atlanta-based tech start-up 373K, Inc., which announced that it would relocate due to the passage the bill in the Senate. (The company made good on its threat, by the way. As of March 17, 373K, Inc. moved their offices to Delaware.)

This set off a firestorm of business opposition to HB 757. By the time Governor Nathan Deal vetoed the bill on March 28, heavy hitters had joined in to publicly oppose the bill, including the National Football League, Atlanta's major pro sports franchises, MailChimp, Verizon, and Yelp. The state was also threatened with a boycott by Disney and its Marvel Studios film unit, as well as stern opposition from entertainment industry stalwarts like AMC Networks (home of The Walking Dead, which is filmed in Georgia), Time Warner, Netflix, and others.

Businesses are attempting to replicate this result across the country. As Missouri's SJR 39 waits to be heard by the House Emerging Issues Committee, 15 Missouri-based business leaders, as well as the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Washington University, have signed onto a letter opposing the bill as written. 

"As we saw in the reaction to the signing of the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act last year, laws that allow those engaged in public commerce to discriminate will hurt our economy and our image as a welcoming state," the letter said. "While we understand the desire to protect clergy and religious institutions from having to perform ceremonies counter to their beliefs, expanding protections to individuals and private businesses that voluntarily enter the stream of public commerce send the message to the rest of the country that Missouri condones discrimination." 

Signers of this letter include The Dow Chemical Company, Monsanto Company, Mastercard, and Express Scripts.

Other opposition to SJR 39 comes from the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, as well as the Kansas City Sports Commission, which argues that such legislation could cost the city hosting opportunities for major sporting events, including the Big 12 Men's Basketball Championship. According to The Kansas City Star, the commission "estimates that the loss of NCAA and other athletic events could be $50 million a year for Kansas City."

Businesses are raising their voice in these battles, and there is reason to hope that state legislatures will listen. We applaud those companies, both big and small, who stand up against those who would use religion to discriminate.