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Same-sex marriage law good for business, employers say

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As a longtime Federal Hill business owner, Penny Troutner cheered the passage of Maryland's same-sex marriage law.

Not only does the owner of Light Street Cycles believe it's a matter of fairness, she believes it's good for business. That goes for workers and employers alike, Troutner said last week after Maryland voters approved a ballot measure making same-sex unions legal. Couples can obtain civil marriage licenses from the state starting Jan. 1.

"I have had gay and lesbian employees and would like to think the more rights they achieved, the easier it is for them to feel comfortable with who they are, which is always better in a workplace," said Troutner, who said she also believes the law will attract gay couples to the city and state. "Marriage adds stability to a community. If you have a business in that community … and stability attracts more people, that makes everyone more prosperous. That's good for where you live and good for where you work."

While advocates hailed support from voters in Maryland and three other states as a turning point in the fight for gay civil rights, employers and government officials in Maryland spoke of economic benefits. Those include improving workplace conditions, helping employers attract and retain talent, and boosting tourism and wedding-related business.

Nationally, thanks to ballot wins in Maryland, Maine, Minnesota and Washington State, Tuesday's election "marks the tipping point in marriage equality for the United States," and generates momentum to effect changes in the workplace at the federal level, said Teddy Witherington, chief marketing officer for Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that advocates for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues in the workplace.

Advocates want either Congress or the U.S. Supreme Court to put in place federal protections against workplace firings or discrimination on the basis of sexual and gender identity, Witherington said.

"Many employers have their own policies of nondiscrimination, but many do not," he said. "For those who do not, this is a big signpost that says get ready. … Smart employers have always known that a diverse workforce, or creating a climate of inclusiveness for a diverse workforce, doesn't just make sense morally, it makes sense financially."

That's true for the state's largest private employer, said Ronald J. Daniels, president of the Johns Hopkins University, which ranks as the top employer when combined with Hopkins' health system. Daniels said he believes marriage equality will give Hopkins a competitive edge over other states when it comes to recruiting and retaining teachers, researchers and other faculty members.

"For me, this is a very simple civil rights issue," Daniels said. "For me, the economic argument adds further support to the case. In a setting where human capital is the most important commodity in so many different industries, and a key source of economic wealth, it's hard to imagine that having a workplace environment beset by discriminatory and arbitrary laws is an effective way to attract people to your jurisdiction."

He said there will be "a strong economic benefit for the state in having a progressive, humane and just legal environment so we can attract people, talent and creativity to Maryland and keep them within the state."

Daniels said he became convinced of this in 2005 when he served as provost of the University of Pennsylvania. At the time, lawmakers in Wisconsin denied the extension of health care benefits for same-sex domestic partners, then later, voters passed an amendment to prohibit same-sex marriage. The University of Pennsylvania, which he said had less restrictive personnel policies, was able to recruit faculty members who decided to leave Wisconsin because of those votes, he said.

"There was a lot of interest from academic and nonacademic staff at those institutions looking for jobs elsewhere, and people did move on the basis of that change," Daniels said.

The businesses that signed on to support Maryland's same-sex marriage campaign included several dozen small employers, but also large ones such as Nike, PayPal and Calvert Investments, said Kevin Nix, a spokesman for Marylanders for Marriage Equality.

They signed on because "it's good for business," Nix said. "It's all about hiring and recruiting and retaining the best and the brightest, and you can only do that by treating all your employees the same, fairly and equally."

Before Tuesday's election, only six states and the District of Columbia allowed same-sex marriage, and the question had been voted down 32 times in other states. In Maryland, opponents of the law argued that same-sex couples could have legal benefits without changing the definition of marriage. Churches organized "Marriage Sundays" to persuade members to vote against Question 6 to show respect for the Bible.

Opponents argued that business people who disagree with the law's definition of marriage could be accused of discrimination and find their livelihoods at risk, especially small-business owners.

Leaders of the Maryland Marriage Alliance, the campaign against Question 6, were unavailable to comment on the economic impact of the measure, but the group has warned that scenarios occurring in other states could be repeated. The group cited instances of Christian innkeepers in Vermont and Illinois being sued after turning away same-sex weddings and wedding professionals being fined for refusing to participate in a same-sex ceremony.

But one economist said he sees no business downside. The new law will help solidify Maryland's reputation as progressive, diverse and accommodating, luring workers in "creative" occupations such as architects, graphic designers, writers, software developers and even venture capitalists, said Anirban Basu, CEO of Sage Policy Group, a Baltimore-based economic and policy consulting firm.

"It's a question of attracting the entrepreneurs of today and the entrepreneurs of tomorrow, and if businesses follow them, all the better," Basu said.

A 2009 study by the UCLA law school found that marriage equality attracts small numbers of individuals in same-sex couples to a state. In Massachusetts, that meant a gain of younger, female and more highly educated and skilled people.

It's unlikely, however, that Maryland's law will have any impact on the state's reputation as "business-unfriendly," Basu said.

"It's not clear that the ability to recruit companies has changed one iota," he said. "This doesn't result in lower taxes or less regulation. What it does do is position Maryland to attract more young, knowledge workers, and there may be economic spinoff from them. All one of them needs to do is start the next Facebook or Google and we can talk about ourselves as Silicon Valley East."

Besides prompting moves to Maryland, the marriage law is expected to boost tourism, state officials said.

"What we know is that the gay market has more disposable income and has a propensity to travel," said Hannah Byron, assistant secretary of tourism, film and the arts for the state Department of Business and Economic Development. "With the passage of the referendum, it puts Maryland on a radar that it hasn't been on before. We want to take advantage of that."

The gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community generates more than $70 billion a year in travel and tourism spending, "so we recognize this is a really good sector for us to focus on," she said.

Byron said she foresees no negative effect from travelers opposed to same-gender marriages. "Families of all shapes, sizes and beliefs find Maryland a welcoming place to spend their vacations, and we do not expect that to change," she said.

Baltimore's tourism officials hope the city will draw gay couples looking to plan weddings and honeymoons. One day after the measure passed, Visit Baltimore launched a micro-site on its website dedicated to helping same-sex couples plan their nuptials and find venues and vendors.

For Wendy Ingram Braswell, who runs an event planning firm with business partner Malinda Davis, the law's passage means a chance to tap into a market of nearly 17,000 same-sex households in Maryland, each with an average household income of more than $103,000.

Same-sex couples living in Maryland are expected to boost wedding spending in the state by $63 million over three years, according to a 2007 study of how same-sex marriage would affect Maryland's budget by the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Policy at the University of California-Los Angeles.

Braswell and Davis plan to move forward with a website they started earlier this year, Marylandgayweddings.com, which lists local vendors such as florists and photographers.

Each of the vendors, which pay to advertise on the site, must sign a pledge of nondiscrimination before they can be listed, Braswell said. She said she expects to increase the number of vendors from 20 to about 1,000 in the first year.

"It's a whole new market that every single one of us can tap into," Braswell said. "We have a whole new set of couples we can cater to."

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

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