Fighting religious freedom (to discriminate)

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee announced that he was ordering all City departments to suspend paying for travel to North Carolina unless it is essential to the City. The problem is the new religious freedom (to discriminate) law that North Carolina’s Governor Pat McCrory just signed. You see, the City of Charlotte had expanded its non-discrimination ordinance to include LGBT people, and the state’s legislature quickly worked to invalidate the protections Charlotte offered–and then some.

It is, of course, bizarre that an elected official on one coast gets involved with the allocation of bathroom stalls 3,000 miles away, but such is the way of civil rights and American politics.

Despite vigorous opposition, this “religious freedom” bill won overwhelming support in both houses of North Carolina’s legislature; Democrats walked out of the state senate session, claiming they were shut out of the discussion anyway. The short story is that the losers in the debate in Charlotte found support from a majority elsewhere. Now, the losers in North Carolina find even broader support as they expand the scope of the conflict. (This, by the way, is what protest politics is all about.)  And the battle is playing out across several states already.

Playing politics on a bigger field is only an advantage for LGBT advocates in North Carolina these days. Powerful business allies have weighed in strongly. Disney, Biogen, Intel, Bank of America, the NFL, NBA, and NCAA, PayPal, and the Motion Picture Association of America have all weighed in with their opposition to the bill, offering more or less explicit threats to limit the business they do in North Carolina while this law is in place. The threatened economic consequences are far greater than the few trips canceled by Mayor Lee’s edict. Although it’s more than possible that some of the corporate leaders have personal commitments to decent treatment of LGBT people, the more powerful explanation is that they are looking out for their business interests. Public support for gay rights is now strong, particularly among younger people, and that means potential customers and employees. Discrimination is bad business.

Nathan Deal, governor of Georgia, got the message from local and national businesses, and just vetoed his legislature’s religious freedom (to discriminate) bill, because the state of Georgia wants to project a welcome to everMarch 23, 2015 Atlanta: Emma Stitt, from left, Megan Harrison, Jessica Reznicek and Lorraine Fontana stand in Sen. Josh McKoon's, R-Columbus, office in the Coverdell Legislative Office Building in protest of the "religious liberty" bill that McKoon is sponsoring. The four were arrested after they were asked to wait in the hallway, but they refused to leave. The protest was part of Moral Monday Georgia. Ben Gray / bgray@ajc.comyone.  Dell, Marvel, Microsoft, Virgin, and Unilever had all weighed in on the debate over recent days.

But please note that activist efforts to stop Georgia and North Carolina from limiting health care, education, and voting rights have received no comparable corporate support. (Track the moral Mondays.)

One interesting wrinkle: Nearly fifty years ago, antiwar activists on American college campuses called for their schools to divest their holdings in Dow Chemical, which made some of the napalm that American planes dropped on Vietnam. Like Mayor Lee’s announcement, it was a statement of moral principle, and an effort to exert some economic pressure. Dow got out of the napalm business in 1969. This week, it was one of the companies urging North Carolina not to pass this bill, and promising to work for its repeal.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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