In recent weeks, a number of states have moved to restrict the rights of gay Americans. Lawmakers in Indiana are working to enact HJR-3, a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage. In Kansas, the House passed HR 2453, which allowed businesses to discriminate against gay couples under the guise of religious freedom. (The state Senate unexpectedly killed the bill last week.) And in Arizona, a similar bill awaits the signature of Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, who has about 10 days to decide whether her state will be the nation’s first to have a “religious protection” law that explicitly allows discrimination against gay citizens.
The move to restrict gay rights in these states bucks the national trend toward greater social acceptance and more legal protections for gay men and women. In the process, it is also forging new partnerships between liberal activists and business organizations.
The alliance comes as quite a surprise for Americans who view business interests and liberal politics as diametrically opposed. Certainly in the economic arena liberals are more likely than conservatives to clash with business groups like the Chamber of Commerce. But those old assumptions are breaking down. They’re breaking down in part because of tea party tomfoolery (the Chamber had little appetite for the government shutdown, for instance), and in part because bigotry is a bad business model.
Look at Indiana. Freedom Indiana, an organization that opposes the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, counts among its founders and major donors Eli Lilly and Cummins, two of Indiana’s largest companies. Earlier this month, 15 Indiana-based CEOs came out against HJR-3 in a joint op-ed in the Indianapolis Star. In making their case, the CEOs did not rely on the language of rights and citizenship, but on a purely economic argument: “HJR-3 would create an unnecessary hurdle to retaining and recruiting the best talent in the world to the Hoosier State. … As it is, we’re seeing top talent leave Indiana because of rhetoric around the proposed amendment and we’re at risk of losing more.”
In states facing “religious freedom” discrimination laws, many businesses have voiced strong opposition to the new legislation. The Kansas Chamber of Commerce raised objections, citing the cost to employers. Business leaders in Arizona, including the state’s Chamber of Commerce, urged Brewer to veto the legislation in language similar to the Indiana CEOs’. “After analyzing the bill, we are very concerned about the effect it could have on Arizona’s economy,” they wrote. “As leaders in the business community, we cannot support measures that could expose our businesses to litigation, nor do we want to send a message that our state is anything but an open and attractive place for visitors and the top talent that will be the cornerstone of our continued economic growth.”
In making economic arguments against discrimination, these business leaders are building on a long history. Perhaps the most famous precedent comes from the business community in 1960s Atlanta. Promoting Atlanta as “the city too busy to hate,” these business leaders saw economic opportunity in opposing discriminatory laws. “We strive to undo the damage the Southern demagogue does to the South,” Atlanta Mayor William Hartsfield explained. “Our aim in life is to make no business, no industry, no educational or social organization ashamed of the dateline ‘Atlanta.’” While massive resistance to civil rights roiled most of the South, Atlanta stood apart with its managed process of desegregation. The ideas embraced by the city’s economic elites – that progress, peace and prosperity went hand in hand – earned the city a reputation for racial progressiveness.
The reality was more complicated, of course. "Peace" meant opposing sit-ins as well as segregationists. And white flight to the suburbs, as historian Kevin Kruse points out, meant that Atlanta was “the city too busy moving to hate.” In the 1980s and 1990s it was one of the most segregated cities in America. None of this, though, conflicted with business leaders’ overarching goal, which was not racial justice but economic prosperity.
Likewise, the economic arguments of Chambers of Commerce and
other business organizations do not lay the groundwork for a broader social
movement. Concerns about recruitment and litigation don’t make for stirring
speeches. But they do offer the framework for an alliance that can secure
progressive social policies – or at least prevent the passage of regressive
ones. And given the number
of discrimination bills making their way through statehouses across the
country, that’s precisely the sort of alliance liberals need.