Why businesses are speaking out against ‘religious freedom’ laws

Local Wal-Mar shoppers were concerned to find a young boy wandering the aisles in a tutu.

Local Wal-Mar shoppers were concerned to find a young boy wandering the aisles in a tutu. April L. Brown, AP (File)

Walmart President and CEO Doug McMillon is among the business leaders who urged Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinsen to veto a bill in Arkansas that critics said would open the door to discrimination against gays and lesbians.April L. Brown, AP (File)

Walmart President and CEO Doug McMillon is among the business leaders who urged Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson to veto a bill in Arkansas that critics said would open the door to discrimination against gays and lesbians.

A bevy of big-name businesses including Apple, Gap and Levi Strauss are publicly speaking out against religious-objections legislation in states such as Indiana and Arkansas.

The world’s largest retailer and America’s largest private employer, Walmart Stores Inc., waded into the debate Tuesday when its CEO urged Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson to veto a bill in Arkansas that critics said would open the door to discrimination against gays and lesbians. On Wednesday Hutchinson called for changes to the bill.

Separately, a group of technology executives from companies such as Yelp and Twitter signed on to a joint statement supporting the addition of non-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people to civil rights laws.

In early 2014, a similar corporate outcry used threats of reduced business to help convince Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer to veto legislation that would have allowed businesses to refuse service to gays based on the owner’s religious beliefs.

Here are some reasons corporate America is raising its voice on this issue:

SOCIAL MEDIA MACHINE

Gone are the days when companies could just sit tight and hope that hot-button topics would blow over without them having to make a statement about it. These days businesses get instant feedback from customers on how they feel about an issue, thanks to social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

Social media catapulted objections to Indiana’s law to the forefront fast, said Laura Ries, president of marketing strategy firm Ries & Ries. That helped force companies to make their voices heard publicly, she said.

The companies can’t stay silent because many customers would see that as tacit support of the laws, she said.

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In addition, many of the companies that have weighed in deal directly with consumers. Because so much of the debate centers on whether businesses can deny services to certain groups, Wal-Mart and other retailers could feel the need to forcefully send a message that they’re open to all customers.

John Challenger, CEO of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, said that speaking out on the religious-objections legislation may not have been too difficult for some companies because it is not as divisive as some previous hot topics in the U.S., such as gun control.

“This issue seems to so many to be such a wrong,” he said.

Dan Eaton, an instructor in business ethics and employment law at San Diego State University, said that since the religious-objections legislation is a law that is perceived to exclude people, companies may feel a broader obligation to speak out.

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