State proposals on LGBTQ rights push businesses into the spotlight

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ATLANTA (AP) — Major corporations invested in Southern states have become some of the staunchest opponents of bills they consider discriminatory, facing off against Republican lawmakers eager to portray their states as the best home for global brands.

The NFL, Apple and other behemoths have cajoled Republicans into rejecting or softening bills in recent years that supporters say protect people who oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds. Companies are speaking up loudly again this year in states where such bills have been proposed as part of a backlash to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that effectively legalized gay marriage.

“As a company that is committed to the principle that everyone deserves to live without fear of discrimination simply for being who they are, becoming an employer in North Carolina, where members of our teams will not have equal rights under the law, is simply untenable,” California-based PayPal CEO Dan Schulman said in a statement last week ending plans to hire 400 people for a new operations center in Charlotte. The decision is among the largest tangible effects of a new North Carolina law overruling LGBT anti-discrimination measures passed by local governments.

Watchers of corporate America’s approach to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues said such public statements are only one way companies have been supportive, pointing to several years of efforts to win over LGBT employees and customers.

CEOs sometimes take the lead, as in 2013 when Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz told a shareholder who believed the company’s pro-gay marriage position hurt profits: “Not every decision is an economic decision.” Some companies have gone beyond what’s required by state or federal law for equal employment policies and benefits. The Corporate Equality Index survey conducted by the Human Rights Campaign, which has graded companies’ environment for LGBT employees since 2002, gave 13 companies a perfect score that first year. This year’s survey reported 407 companies hit that mark.

When Cindy Armine-Klein joined the payment technology company First Data in 2014, the firm had recently scored below 50 on the survey. CEO Frank Bisignano told Armine-Klein when she was hired as chief control officer that year to prioritize creation of LGBT programs.

Since then, the company has added coverage of domestic partners to employee benefits, included gender identity in its anti-discrimination policies and created a group to connect LGBT employees around the country. When a bill shielding opponents of same-sex marriage cleared the Georgia legislature this year, concerns quickly reached executives through that network.

The firm, headquartered in Atlanta, joined about 500 others opposing the bill. Bisignano made a personal call to thank Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal following his veto of the measure.

“When you have the opportunity to bring your whole self to work, that creates happy, active, creative employees,” said Armine-Klein, who married her wife in 2011. “That is good for the employee; that is good for us as a company; that is good for our clients.”

But firms also want to be on equal footing with competitors.

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