3.6.2012 by Abby Philips
One by one, national corporations like Microsoft, Starbucks, Boeing and Google are wading into the once-risky business of taking a position supporting gay marriage in states across the country.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the lawsuit challenging the Defense of Marriage Act, which a federal appeals court called unconstitutional on Thursday. Forty-eight companies, including Nike, Time Warner Cable, Aetna, Exelon Corp., and Xerox had signed a brief arguing that the law negatively affected their businesses.
But the real test will come in November, when voters in four states — Maryland, Minnesota, Maine and Washington — will head to the polls. To date, gay marriage advocates have yet to win a statewide ballot initiative but hope corporate support and money will help turn the tide.
Last year, 25 executives including the CEOs of Goldman Sachs, Viacom and Alcoa lobbied New York legislators to approve same-sex marriage.
In January, Microsoft, Boeing, Vulcan and RealNetworks were among those who voiced their support for a bill approving gay marriage in Washington state.
The corporate activism is a change from as little as five years ago, when major companies shied away from same-sex marriage issues in order to avoid a backlash. Social conservative groups like the American Family Association systematically targeted companies like Home Depot and Ford for their support of gay rights organizations.
"Earlier on there was more risk than reward," said Bob Witeck, a consultant who works with corporations on gay, lesbian and transgender policies. "Now there's far more talk about the reward and less about the risk."
The 48 businesses and nearly two dozen other employer organizations that signed on to a federal court brief opposing DOMA represent a "sea change" in the views of the business community, said Beth Boland, an attorney who worked on the brief.
In the brief, the companies say DOMA, which defines marriage as the legal union of one man and one woman, is expensive to comply with and forces businesses to treat legally married couples of the same sex differently from couples of different sexes.
"I see a seismic shift in the business community in the last five to 10 years," Boland said. "I can't even begin to state how different these issues are perceived within the business community.
"I think there is a symbolic factor of showing that a growing number of vocal members of the business community want to come forward and indicate that as a matter of their own internal employee policy they see this differentiation as negatively affecting their business," she added.
Gay marriage advocates like the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, Human Rights Campaign and Third Way, a moderate Democratic think tank, are leading the charge to hone a pro-business strategy ahead of November's referendums.
Eventually, they expect corporations to play a role in lobbying moderate Republicans and Democrats in Washington.
"There's no doubt that American businesses will be central to the dismantling of DOMA," Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese said. "The business case against DOMA could not be stronger. Not only does DOMA hurt employees but it also costs businesses a significant amount of money."
Starbucks's endorsement in the Washington state campaign has been good for business, CEO Howard Schultz told shareholders in March.
"I think any decision of this type or magnitude has to be made with great thoughtfulness. I would assure you that a senior team at Starbucks discussed this and it was, to be candid with you, not something that was a difficult decision for us," Schultz told a shareholder and National Organization for Marriage representative who had expressed concern about the company's decision at the meeting.
"Candidly, since we made that decision, there has not been any dissolution whatsoever in our business," he added.
Jonathan Baker, director of the Corporate Fairness Project for the NOM, said the group, which has begun a campaign to oppose corporate support for same sex-marriage, isn't looking to recruit business support for traditional marriage.
"A lot of businesses were getting into a pro same-sex marriage position. Our goal was to support the other side of that," Baker said. "Our goal is not to have Target supporting traditional marriage. Our goal is to have Target stay neutral."
Baker added: "Marriage isn't terribly pertinent to their business."
NOM launched a "Dump Starbucks" campaign this year, challenging the coffee company's vocal support for gay marriage. It is also proposing a Bank of America shareholder resolution aimed at enshrining freedom of speech for employees who support or oppose gay marriage.
In North Carolina, all of the Fortune 500 companies in the state — including Bank of America and Duke Energy — stayed on the sidelines during last month's referendum to enact a same-sex marriage ban, The New York Times reported. The referendum passed by a double-digit margin, raising questions about whether the issue is still too hot for many corporations to handle.
Jeremy Kennedy, campaign manager for the anti-referendum organization Protect all North Carolina Families, said corporations in the state split the difference by pressuring lawmakers to include language in the amendment allowing companies to offer domestic-partner benefits to their employees. But they sat out when it went to the voters.
Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers did make a forceful personal statement against the amendment, but his company declined to take an official position. "There was real hesitancy on the part of corporations to stick their neck out officially as a company," Kennedy said.
Many had read the tea leaves — and the polling data — that clearly showed the amendment was likely to pass by a wide margin in the heavily evangelical Christian state.
"I don't know that a Bank of America or Duke Energy would have made that big of a difference on these issues," Kennedy said. "People were looking to their pastors, their Bible and their faith on this issue."
Large corporations have also been slow to issue full-throated statements opposing a Minnesota constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, which is on the ballot in November, but there are signs the support may eventually come.
A small group of Minnesota-based business executives, including Marilyn Carlson Nelson, CEO of Carlson Companies which owns T.G.I. Friday's and Country Inns & Suites, and Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic, have penned editorials opposing the constitutional amendment.
And Target, which faced intense backlash in 2010 for donating to a Minnesota group that supported an anti-gay candidate, appears to have made an about-face.
Target is holding a "Wear It With Pride" T-shirt promotion that would benefit groups opposing the constitutional amendment. In a statement, Target cited the company's "long history of supporting the LGBT community through giving, volunteerism and event sponsorship and participation" and encouraged its employees to "exercise their right to vote" in November's referendum.
Even if companies aren't supporting gay marriage efforts, what's important is they're not fighting them, said Marc Solomon, national campaign director of Freedom to Marry.
"I don't think you see any corporations taking stances against equality," he said. "You're either taking a stance in favor of equality or you don't take a stance at all. We've certainly defeated our opponents with respect to getting corporations to take an anti-gay stance."© 2012 POLITICO LLC