WASHINGTON — Corporations in the United States have long lobbied state governments for business-friendly regulations and tax policies, but now they are teaming up with homosexual-rights groups to defeat legislation aimed at strengthening religious-liberty protections.
Companies such as Apple, Disney, Time Warner and American Airlines in recent years have pressured governors in Arizona, Indiana, North Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi to veto religious-liberty bills, warning that such laws will cost those states hundreds of jobs and cripple their economic development.
In just the last month, political leaders in three states — Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia — have come under intense pressure from business leaders to reverse new religious-freedom legislation bills. And both Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe subsequently vetoed the new legislation, in large measure because of the economic threats made against their states.
“It’s really just a form of bullying,” said Roger Severino, who oversees the Heritage Foundation’s DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society, which focuses on religious liberty, marriage and life issues.
Severino told the Register, “‘Big Business’ has teamed up with the ‘Cultural Left’ to try to silence people and institutions who dissent from the new sexual orthodoxy.” He accused those corporations of hypocrisy, noting that several of them have facilities in foreign countries where homosexuality is a criminal offense.
“For example, Apple has a store in the United Arab Emirates, where same-sex conduct can lead to someone going to jail for 10 years, or worse,” Severino said. “Yet here, Apple is weighing in against states that simply want to make sure that people’s rights, as they’ve always enjoyed them, are preserved when it comes to their reasonable beliefs about marriage.”
Mississippi Stands Firm
Severino praised Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant for “standing up to the bullying” and signing his state’s Protecting Freedom of Conscience From Government Discrimination Act into law on April 5. Bryant resisted calls from several large companies to veto the bill, saying it was necessary to protect residents’ deeply held religious beliefs.
“The legislation is designed in the most targeted manner possible to prevent government interference in the lives of the people from which all power in the state is derived,” Bryant said in a prepared statement.
The new Mississippi law allows civil clerks, judges and magistrates to recuse themselves from providing marriage licenses to same-sex couples or presiding at their weddings. The law grants immunity from state actions to religious organizations who fire or discipline employees for actions or lifestyles at odds with their moral values and protects individuals who decline to provide medical or counseling services on moral grounds.
Severino said the Mississippi law prevents discrimination in a “balanced and clear manner,” with little room for opponents to make “wild hypothetical accusations,” but organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign, which advocates for homosexual causes, have called the law “appalling and horrific.” Critics also say the law will allow businesses to refuse services to homosexuals.
Georgia and Virginia
Those same concerns were raised in Georgia, after the state legislature overwhelmingly passed the Free Exercise Protection Act, which, among its provisions, protected pastors from performing same-sex weddings, called on businesses to make reasonable accommodations for employees to attend weekend religious services and protected faith-based organizations from renting or leasing their properties for purposes that conflict with their values.
The legislation’s supporters described it as a compromise bill that contained specific anti-discrimination language and did not extend protections for private businesses that refused service to homosexuals. But several corporate giants called on Gov. Deal to veto the bill. The National Football League warned the law would risk Atlanta’s bid for the Super Bowl, while the NCAA hinted that it would hinder the state’s chances of hosting future championship games.
On March 28, Deal vetoed House Bill 757, arguing that the bill did not reflect Georgia’s image as a state full of “warm, friendly and loving people,” adding: “That is the character of Georgia. I intend to do my part to keep it that way.”
Deal’s veto angered many social conservatives and organizations in Georgia that lobbied for the bill. Georgia state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, who co-sponsored the legislation, told the Register that he was disappointed with the governor’s decision.
“I’m very distressed by what happened, not only because we had a very modest bill that absolutely did nothing negative,” McKoon said, “but it simply provided people with some pretty modest protections. I wonder, moving forward, what does it mean if businesses feel emboldened like this to weigh in on these issues?”
Religious liberty suffered a similar setback two days later in Virginia, when Gov. McAuliffe vetoed a religious-freedom bill on live radio. The bill, which would have forbidden the state of Virginia from punishing religious groups that follow their sincerely held belief that marriage is between a man and a woman, passed the House of Delegates by a vote of 59-38 and the Senate by 21-19.
“The Virginia Catholic Conference is deeply dismayed by the governor’s action,” the conference said in a March 30 statement. “This veto risks the destruction of Virginia’s long tradition of upholding the religious freedom of faith communities, which dates back to Thomas Jefferson.”
McAuliffe claimed that signing the bill would be “making Virginia unwelcome to same-sex couples, while artificially engendering a sense of fear and persecution among our religious communities.”
He also cited corporation leaders’ opposition to the bill, charging that it was “bad for business.”
“They don’t want headaches coming from the state,” McAuliffe said.
Mike Griffin, a spokesman for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, which supported the Georgia legislation, accused corporations and their allies in the homosexual-rights movement of “economic hostage-taking.”
“The left has pretty much captured the narrative regarding our religious-liberty legislation that they describe as discriminatory, and the media picks that narrative up, which makes it very difficult to overcome,” Griffin told the Register.
That dynamic has been especially evident in North Carolina, where Gov. Pat McCrory signed House Bill 2 into law on March 23.
Known as the “bathroom bill,” the North Carolina law repealed a Charlotte ordinance that allowed people who identify as “transgender” to use public accommodations, such as bathrooms and showers, that correspond to their gender identity, not their biological sex. The new state law prohibits local communities from extending employment and public accommodations protections to people on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The new law makes the state’s anti-discrimination statute — which covers race, religion, color, age, national origin, gender and handicaps — the final word.
In a video statement, McCrory said the bill provided protection for people’s basic expectation of privacy, but the new law has generated a firestorm of controversy from homosexual groups, big corporations and national media outlets that describe the law as an “anti-gay” measure.
More than 100 companies protested the law in an open letter to McCrory. PayPal CEO Dan Schulman announced that his company was canceling its plans to open a new global operations center in Charlotte because the law “perpetuates discrimination, and it violates the values and principles” of his company.
Politicians in other states, including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, announced they were banning non-essential state-sponsored travel to North Carolina. Patrick Purtill Jr., director of legislative affairs for the Faith & Freedom Coalition, told the Register that it is increasingly clear that many in the homosexual-rights movement and their political allies are not interested in “live and let live” when it comes to religious liberty.
“This is kind of something new, and I think we’re seeing a real hostility to people of faith,” Purtill said. “The leadership of these corporations really do believe that religious sensibilities and the concerns of religious people are anathema to them. There is just a certain cultural hostility.”
Purtill also said he was taken aback by the corporate involvement in social issues, noting that similar efforts prompted former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer to veto a religious-liberty bill in 2014 and Indiana lawmakers last year to amend the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act to address fears that the law would allow private businesses to discriminate against homosexual patrons.
“It’s disturbing, but it also says something about where corporations are today, in terms of our polity as a whole,” Purtill said. “General Motors in the 1950s, when GM ruled the universe, would never stick their nose in the democratic process the way they are here, with something that has nothing to do with their product line.”
Pushback Against Pressure
However, Purtill said he believes McCrory’s support of the legislation in North Carolina is the beginning of a pushback to the corporate pressure, arguing that the corporations, for the most part, are posturing, and many of them already operate in the 22 states that have defined religious-liberty laws.
Severino agreed, predicting that more states will follow Mississippi’s example.
“Religious freedom is popular, and it, of course, reflects a natural right embodied in the First Amendment,” Severino said. “And what we’re seeing is that more states are pushing back on the Supreme Court’s activist decision that redefined marriage for the entire country.”
“So what happened in Mississippi gives a boost to other states,” Severino said. “It shows you can stand up to the bullies — and win.”
Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.
Catholic News Agency contributed to this report.