Once an unthinkable idea even five years ago, corporations are now warming up to the idea of supporting same-sex marriage.
Within the last half-decade, corporate America has gone from shying away from support of gay marriage, in the wake of conservative group protests of companies like Ford (NYSE:F) and Home Depot (NYSE:HD) when they expressed support for same-sex marriage, to more actively supporting it.
In the recent federal appeals court case that ruled the gay marriage-banning Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, 48 companies, including Aetna (NYSE:AET), Time Warner Cable (NYSE:TWC), Nike (NYSE:NKE) and Xerox (NYSE:XRX) signed briefs opposing DOMA. In January, Boeing (NYSE:BA), Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), and RealNetworks (NASDAQ:RNWK) voiced support for a gay marriage bill in Washington state. Last year, the CEOs of Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS), Viacom (NASDAQ:VIAB), and Alcoa (NYSE:AA) lobbied on behalf of New York’s same-sex marriage bill.
What has changed corporations’ minds? “Earlier on there was more risk than reward,” said consultant Bob Witeck, who works with corporations on gay, lesbian and transgender policies. “Now there’s far more talk about the reward and less about the risk.” These include the legal benefits that same-sex marriage would bestow upon gay and lesbian couples who are unable to marry now, and possibly even negative impacts on companies’ bottom line if they are seen as opposing gay marriage.
Of course, not all political organizations are thrilled to see corporations move in this direction. The National Organization for Marriage has been fighting back against the recent declaration that DOMA was unconstitutional, and has been hoping to keep companies neutral on the issue of same-sex marriage, if not opposed to it. In light of Starbucks’ (NASDAQ:SBUX) vocal support for gay marriage, NOM launched a “Dump Starbucks” campaign. It also proposed a Bank of America (NYSE:BAC) shareholder resolution that would protect freedom of speech for employees supporting or opposing gay marriage.
Both the inevitable appeal of the DOMA case to the U.S. Supreme Court and upcoming referendums in four states — Maryland, Minnesota, Maine and Washington — on gay marriage will test corporations’ ability to influence public policy on this divisive topic. Or their stomach for it. In North Carolina’s vote on gay marriage, in which a ban was approved by a large margin, the state’s Fortune 500 companies — including Bank of America and Duke Energy (NYSE:DUK) — were silent on the vote.
– Benjamin Nanamaker, InvestorPlace Money & Politics Editor
The opinions contained in this column are solely those of the writer.
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