business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

When I was working my way through high school as a salesman in a men's clothing store, my boss, Dick Coulter, was pretty much willing to do anything for any reasonable charity that came in the front door. He was a big guy with a big heart.

The one place where he drew the line was politics. Never get the business involved with that stuff, he'd say. All you can do is irritate half your customers. (He used a different word than "irritate.")

I've always thought that this was an appropriate position to take. That's not to suggest that business owners shouldn't vote or get involved in politics and governance on a personal level ... but when business takes a stand, it can be a mistake.

Or an instance in which the business believes it simply doesn't have any choice.

This seems to be the case in North Carolina, where a law fast-tracked and passed by the legislature, and then signed by GOP Gov. Pat McCrory, superseded a recently enacted Charlotte City Council ordinance extending protections to gays and lesbians as well as bisexual and transgender people while at hotels, restaurants and stores; it also allowed people to use restrooms aligned with their gender identities, not the gender of their birth. Not only did the law overrule the Charlotte ordinance, but it also prevents any other local government from approving any similar ordinance.

The Washington Post reports that "McCrory has defended the state law as being needed to respond to what he called the 'government overreach' of a Charlotte city ordinance that expanded civil rights protections for people based on sexual orientation and gender identity." Though he has "responded to a backlash ... by signing an executive order Tuesday aimed at calming the firestorm ... McCrory said he was expanding protections for state employees, which would prevent these workers from being fired for being gay or transgender. He also said he would seek legislation restoring the right to sue for discrimination."

But he didn't change any of the law's provisions about gender identity and the use of bathrooms - the parts of the law that generated the biggest backlash.

As noted here on MNB a few days ago, more than 120 executives with a wide variety of companies that do business in North Carolina have raised objections - including Salesforce, Levi Strauss & Co., Airbnb, Barnes & Noble, Kellogg's, Apple, Pfizer, LinkedIn, Hyatt, YouTube, Starwood, Facebook, Google, Bank of America, Hilton, American Airlines, IBM, Starbucks, Microsoft, and Wells Fargo.

It has extended farther than that. The NBA is considering moving to another state the 2017 All-Star game that was scheduled to be played in Charlotte. Bruce Springsteen cancelled concerts there, saying that it was "the strongest means I have for raising my voice in opposition to those who continue to push us backwards instead of forwards.” And in what has to be the funniest response to a very un-funny situation, a popular porn site (and by popular, I mean that it is one of the 100 most visited websites in the world) announced that anyone trying to access it from a North Carolina IP address would only see a black screen.

Not everybody felt that the best way to protest the law was to stop doing business in North Carolina. Jimmy Buffett perhaps was the most quoted entertainment figure in this regard, saying that while it is a "stupid law, based on stupid assumptions," his shows were booked and sold out long before it was passed. "I happen to believe that the majority of our fans in North Carolina feel the way I do about that law ... I am not going to let stupidity or bigotry trump fun for my loyal fans this year." But, he said, he probably won't be scheduling any future concerts in North Carolina until the law is changed.

We've seen this happen before.

NBC News reports that in Georgia, "where lawmakers last month approved HB 757, a bill allowing businesses to deny services to gay and lesbian couples by citing religious principles. Disney and the NFL were among the major corporations threatening to boycott the Peach State over the legislation. But Republican Gov. Nathan Deal ended up citing 'the character of our state and the character of our people' when he vetoed the bill on March 28." And similar debates have arisen in places like Indiana and Mississippi where laws framed as protecting religious freedom are seen by many as actually trying to institutionalize prejudice.

In so many ways, these debates put businesses in a very difficult position - though I think it is noteworthy that many companies are choosing to alienate the customers they have who favor these laws rather than offend people who are fighting against them. I suspect that this in part is because these so-called religious freedom laws actually do seem at odds with the human values espoused by these companies; to be fair, they also are aware that how they react in North Carolina will get ample publicity in states and communities where such laws are seen as bigotry, plain and simple.

There is no reason to think that these cultural debates ever are going to end, but there's every reason to think that businesses are not going to be able to stay on the sidelines, to remain neutral. In the end, they can't ... because their customers won't let them.

The Eye-Opening fact is that they really don't have any choice.
KC's View: