Here are two questions that appear unrelated but turn out to be closely intertwined: What constitutes a "business friendly" environment at the state level, and when do the rights of individuals not to be discriminated against transcend the rights of those who wish to discriminate against them on religious grounds?
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal appears to have figured out the correct answers. On Monday, he vetoed legislation that would have allowed businesses and non-profit groups to discriminate against same-sex couples by claiming that equal treatment violates their religious views. The so-called "license to discriminate" proposal drew national attention after businesses, including Walt Disney Co., announced they would curtail operations in the state if it became law.
In vetoing the controversial bill, Governor Deal, a Republican who ran for office on a pro-business platform, said he rejected the arguments of conservative evangelicals who wanted to turn back the clock after last year's Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. It was a moment of statesmanship, but his fortitude had ample reinforcement — not only was Disney ready to pull out but Apple, Time Warner, Coca-Cola, Delta, Google and Intel had taken similar positions. Even the National Football League indicated that Atlanta's bid to host the Super Bowl might be at risk, and the NCAA voiced concerns as well.
Less easily convinced are authorities in North Carolina, which last week approved a truly odious law that, among other things, nullifies antidiscrimination ordinances approved by cities (Charlotte, in particular) to protect the LGBT community and others. It even bars transgender individuals from using bathrooms that match their gender identity. It is a woeful step backward in a state that, like Georgia, puts a premium on business development, particularly in its technology-oriented Research Triangle.
The national spotlight now focused on the Tar Heel State, a campaign Gov. Pat McCrory dismisses as "political theater" and "political correctness run amok," is likely to intensify. What self-respecting business wants to be associated with a state that expects birth certificates to be checked at the restroom door? Making matters worse, Governor McCrory and the state legislature took their action wrapped in a self-righteous cloak of public safety — as if transgender people using gender-appropriate restrooms was some kind of threat when, in reality, it's the transgender who face the greatest risk of becoming victims, whether in bathrooms or elsewhere.
As in Georgia, businesses are beginning to protest (although the bill in North Carolina was approved and signed into law so quickly that it's has taken time for those voices to be heard). The American Civil Liberties Union has mounted a legal challenge, the state could lose $4.5 billion in federal funding as a Title IX violation, and businesses from Bank of America to the National Basketball Association have denounced the law, the latter now threatening not to hold the NBA All-Star Game in Charlotte next year.
Even New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the mayors of New York, Seattle and San Francisco have gotten into the act by banning non-essential government employee travel to North Carolina. Such a gesture may be largely symbolic, but civil rights campaigns have been won through symbolic actions before. Gov. Larry Hogan and others of influence in Maryland ought to voice their concerns as well — if only to signal to the larger business community that the Free State stands up for human rights.
As we've noted on this page before, promoting business growth in a state is not just about lowering tax rates or streamlining regulations (although there is surely a place for both if adopted with care), but about improving the quality of life. Business executives have to concern themselves with public image, and most don't care to endorse discrimination, particularly those operating in the knowledge economy.