Recent state legislative battles in Georgia, Mississippi, and North Carolina have once again catapulted religious freedom to forefront of the national political conversation, drawing the ire of many mainstream media outlets and LGBT interest groups.
In Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed House Bill 757, which provided protections for religious officials unwilling to participate in same-sex marriage ceremonies and grew to include language opponents argued might even permit businesses to deny employment to anyone with differing religious beliefs. Gov. Pat McCrory of North Carolina approved his state’s bill, which removes sexual orientation from the statewide anti-discrimination ordinance, thus making it easier for faith-based organizations to decline goods and services such as open access to bathrooms and locker rooms. Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed similar conscientious objector legislation on April 5.
Legislative contests like these have become all too familiar in today’s political world. They represent only the latest scuffles in the national battle over state-level religious freedom being waged across the country, a struggle that began when states started legalizing same-sex marriage and accelerated after the Supreme Court mandated gay marriage nationwide in Obergefell v. Hodges last June.
Indeed, we’ve seen almost the exact same controversies play out in places like Arizona, Indiana, Arkansas, and Texas, wherein state representatives pass religious liberty legislation with substantial majorities, only to have their Republican executives either veto it outright or water it down due to extraordinary pressure by outside groups that relentlessly cry “anti-gay!” and “state-sanctioned discrimination!”
The major difference in the most recent battles over marriage, however, is the massive, even unprecedented amount of corporate pressure states now face in the days both leading up to—and after—their decisions.
The Rise of Corporate Activism
A slew of major American corporations, celebrities, and politicians threatened to boycott and pull business from Indiana, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and others in response to their religious freedom bills. The most notable culprits include corporate giants like Apple, Google, Facebook, Home Depot, Netflix, Dell, PayPal, and Coca-Cola; Hollywood A-listers like Anne Hathaway, Julianne Moore, and Seth McFarlane; production companies like Disney, Marvel, and AMC Networks (which films smash hit “The Walking Dead” in Georgia); city mayors and state governors, like Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York and Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington; and even sports organizations like the NFL, NBA, and NCAA, all of which threatened to take the states out of consideration for hosting major athletic events in the coming years.
Georgia and North Carolina have tax policies that rank among the most-friendly for businesses nationwide, and while it’s difficult to estimate the combined economic impact of all these boycotts, suffice it to say all that lost business would be devastating. To put it in perspective, from 2014-2015 Georgia reportedly raked in $6 billion in revenue from the film industry alone. A boycott from just that one industry likely would have forced the governor’s veto, and when you figure in the combined revenue generated from the other corporations listed above, it’s plain the bill never stood a chance.
This type of open activism by corporate heavyweights is similar to what Michael Needham and Ryan T. Anderson call “cultural cronyism,” a phenomenon in which big government and its allies in the courts align with special interests to enforce certain policy goals. These policies often would fail in the public forums of our republic because, as Needham and Anderson put it, they typically involve unpopular interests that contradict the public good and the will of voters.
In the past few years we’ve witnessed this at the federal level, as the Obama administration has threatened to withhold millions in federal funds to coerce public schools into radically altering their sex curriculum and bathroom policies.
These corporations and celebrities are doing essentially the same thing: leveraging their immense material worth against these states to influence public policy decisions that should be left to the democratic process.
For Some Reason, Corporations Feel Free to Attack
As The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway notes, “it’s pretty obvious there’s a highly-orchestrated, corporate campaign that’s been going on at a national level” against legislation providing religious exemptions in same-sex weddings. While occasionally there’s some pushback on other topics like immigration, for instance, the nation’s most powerful corporate elites typically only get this aggressive when states try to push back against the LGBT agenda. This makes sense, after all, for there’s documented evidence of LGBT lobbying groups dishing out cash to cozy up to American business leaders.
You might argue that these industry tycoons only get involved because it’s good business; support for same-sex marriage has skyrocketed in recent years, and they want to appeal to their consumers. Although that may be plausible, last year’s Pew Research poll indicates that roughly half the public believes religious officials and small business owners should have the option to refuse to participate in gay weddings. It doesn’t really make sense to alienate half of your potential market, does it?
You might also believe these businessmen are simply acting on their values. They genuinely want to stand up against perceived discrimination against LGBT individuals. If that were the case, then why haven’t businesses like Apple, Disney, and Coca-Cola pulled their operations in countries like Saudi Arabia and India, which criminalize homosexuality? Why haven’t state governors and city mayors issued travel bans to all the countries that haven’t recognized same-sex marriage?
Big Business Is Bad—Unless it Shares My Agenda
The political response to the corporate activism in Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and others has highlighted the double standard regarding corporations’ rights to free speech.
The partisan divide over the issue has been stark ever since the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, which allows businesses, unions, and individuals to donate unlimited amounts to political action committees, or “super PACs.” While Republicans have generally supported the ruling, the 2016 Democratic presidential candidates have both designated finance reform as a major priority in their campaigns.
Sen. Bernie Sanders characterizes the idea that corporations have speech rights through financial donations as “absurd,” and his disdain for Citizens United has even compelled him to publicly refuse any support from super PACs that spring up in his name. This stance is so persuasive amongst his supporters that he actually risks losing support if he doesn’t frequently denounce big money. It’s more personal for Clinton, who reminded us during a February debate that the ruling came about because of “a right-wing attack” on her and her campaign. She followed up by reassuring voters that “you’re not going to find anybody more committed to aggressive campaign finance reform than me.”
So one would reasonably expect those crusading against big money influencing politics to harshly criticize the week-long, very public display of exactly that happening in Georgia and North Carolina. Yet any condemnation of the billionaires threatening these Republican governors was conspicuously absent in the days surrounding their respective decisions.
Indeed, the left-leaning mainstream media instead applauded the activism, commending big business for “leading the charge” on gay rights. Both Sanders and Clinton focused their responses to the bills on simply reiterating their unequivocal support for LGBT individuals, notably keeping silent about the corporate muscle that forced Deal’s veto and—with the help of the Obama administration—may soon compel McCrory to backpedal in North Carolina.
The few who did call out these corporations for their bullying tactics included some Republican groups who supported the bills, but even on the Right the majority of the criticism was instead directed at Deal for wavering in the face of all that pressure. This is likely because most conservatives agree with Citizens United and believe corporations have a right to use their resources for political speech. At least they’re being ideologically consistent, which is apparently more than can be said for the Left.
Call the Big Man’s Bluff
Clearly this type of corporate activism amounts to essentially the same thing as the campaign finance law Citizens United establishes: politicians beholden to powerful special interests. In the same way that an elected official elevates the policy interests of people who contribute lots of money to his campaign, a governor sacrifices some of his (or his constituents’) policy goals to appease select billionaire business owners who happen to generate the bulk of his state’s revenue.
Although things may soon resolve themselves in the South, this surely isn’t the last time we’ll see this network of like-minded corporations insert themselves into state and local policy battles.
Indeed, transgender rights and “gender identity” discrimination in public facilities, two issue areas included in the new North Carolina and Mississippi laws, are shaping up to be the new target for corporations and politicians to hijack for their political theater act going forward. We saw the saga play out last month with South Dakota‘s bathroom bill, which sought to protect women and children by prohibiting individuals to use public facilities based on their subjective “gender identity” alone. With bills on this issue coming down the pipeline in at least ten other states, it’s likely we’ll see corporations making headlines again soon enough.
If our media and our politicians refuse to call out the double standard that enables corporations to promote unpopular special interests, what can be done about it?
State groups and representatives should start exerting equal pressure onto their governors to call these corporations on their bluffs. While states certainly run the risk of losing millions or even billions in revenue, some of these businesses also have a lot to lose. By following through on their threats, these industries would sacrifice the consumer market each state provides, lose out on the opportunity to conduct business in some tax-friendly areas, and potentially eliminate hundreds of jobs, leading to an angry mob of workers they’d have to appease.
As many of these hypocritical corporations have already proven, they’ll kick their artificial values to the curb once they realize there’s a lot of money on the line. Governors, it’s now on you to expose them for it.