The leaders of large corporations have not generally been at the vanguard of civil rights movements in this country. The average CEO is usually more concerned about stock valuations and quarterly dividends than about fighting discrimination. And when was the last time you saw the money-hungry NCAA use its clout to attack the very state where the organization is headquartered?
Yet Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and some of his fellow Hoosiers in the state legislature have been on the receiving end of all this and more for supporting that state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which the governor signed into law only last week. Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook has spoken out strongly against it. Indiana-based Angie's List is putting a $40 million expansion on hold because of it. And the NCAA suggested that maybe having the Final Four of its men's basketball playoffs in Indianapolis might not be such a good thing after all.
Is this a bad law? Absolutely. Other states and the federal government have approved measures protecting religious freedom over the past two decades, but this is different, both in exact wording, intent and timing. As Mr. Cook has noted, it's part of a recent trend of using the cover of religious freedom to "enshrine discrimination in state law." It appears aimed most directly at the LGBT community and enabling businesses to deny service to gay and lesbian customers, a possibility Governor Pence and others say was unintentional and that they will now attempt to "fix" — although the crucial specifics remain to be seen.
No doubt Mr. Pence was unprepared for the sharp rebuke he has taken from so many quarters (including our personal favorites, bans on government-funded travel to Indiana by employees of Connecticut and Washington state, along with the cities of Seattle and San Francisco — the kind of treatment usually reserved for foreign countries operating under apartheid or engaging in similar human rights abuses). But he was likely especially surprised by the notion that he had just made Indiana one of the least business-friendly states in the nation.
Business friendliness, a term used by conservative politicians mostly as a shorthand for low taxes and lax regulation, turns out to have a much broader meaning to actual business leaders. It appears there are numerous corporations that don't care to be associated with bigotry. And this isn't just about Mr. Cook, who is openly gay. Hoosier business leaders including the Indiana Chamber of Commerce spoke out against the proposal even before the Governor Pence signed it — much as business leaders helped convince Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer to veto a similar religious freedom bill in that state last year.
Why Indiana's law blew up in such a powerful and public fashion is likely a tribute to some specific circumstances — the presence of the Final Four next weekend and the earlier furor in Arizona among them — but also to the broad public acceptance of equal rights for all Americans including gays and lesbians. Marriage equality may not be argued before the Supreme Court for four weeks yet, but it's largely settled law in the court of public opinion. A recent CNN poll found public acceptance of same-sex marriage nationwide at 63 percent, which is up 14 percent from five years ago.
Should Indiana and other states bent on LGBT discrimination dig in their heels, one can only wonder whether this will breed nationwide tours by governors like Connecticut's Dannel Malloy intent on luring businesses away from these unfriendly venues. "Connecticut is open for business for all, y'all" or something like that. (Take note, Gov. Larry Hogan.) Surely, that would be a welcome counter-point to Gov. Rick Perry's recent efforts to steal business from Maryland, California and other states under the "business friendly" mantra, since Texas is among those locales called out for shameful LGBT discrimination by Mr. Cook and others.
This kind of corporate leadership cuts both ways, of course. Progressives were far less happy to hear the owners of Hobby Lobby rail against the Affordable Care Act on the grounds it conflicted with their religious beliefs. In Maryland, Beretta U.S.A. had some unpleasant things to say about the state's firearm safety law passed in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on their way to announcing a factory relocation. And Chick-fil-A has been boycotted by some and lionized by others for its owners' efforts to fight same-sex marriage.
Still, it's a welcome trend to hear so many individuals from across the nation stand up to state-sanctioned discrimination despite the religious smoke screen surrounding the law. Business leaders have considerable clout — as Mr. Cook has demonstrated — and there are few better or more intrinsically American causes for them to pursue than fundamental human rights.