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Progressive Voice: Opposing Discrimination is Good Business

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the individual author and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organization or The following column was written by Paul Friedman.

Paul FriedmanLast week, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed the “The Religious Freedom Restoration Act” into law. The resulting outrage forced him to go on Sunday’s ABC News show “This Week” and attempt to clarify the law’s meaning and dispel the belief that it was discriminatory. He was unsuccessful.

As The Indianapolois Star reported, “Stephanopoulos asked Pence six times whether the new law would allow a business to discriminate against gay couples, and Pence ducked the question six times.” When asked about supporting a law banning discrimination against gays and lesbians, Pence said “that was not on [his] agenda.”

Within days of the law’s passage, companies and groups began cancelling Indiana events. Singer Audra McDonald announced she would devote the proceeds from her upcoming concert to a gay advocacy group. Angie’s List put an expensive expansion on hold. The band Wilco cancelled concert dates. A major technology conference announced that it would relocate to another state. Indianapolis’ Republican mayor called for repeal of the legislation.

Companies from Marriott, Apple, Levi’s and Yelp to sports organizations such as the NCAA, NBA, and NASCAR voiced opposition to the law and emphasized their commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Fortunately, Arlington County has had diversity and inclusion as core values for many years, and those values will help Arlington in its efforts to attract the businesses that will be at the heart of the 21st century economy.

While Virginia had previously passed a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and kept Arlington from expanding LGBT rights and establishing benefits for same-sex couples, the Commonwealth’s current leaders have recognized the importance of non-discrimination to the success of the state’s economy.

Since January 2014, when Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, and Attorney General Mark Herring were sworn into office, Virginia has turned a corner on human rights. All supported marriage equality in their campaigns.

Almost immediately after taking office, Attorney General Herring determined, based on federal Constitutional principles, that his office could no longer defend the Commonwealth’s position opposing marriage equality. Instead, his office argued successfully in court that Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban violated the U.S. Constitution.

When the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to review the 4th Circuit’s decision to that effect, marriage equality became the law of the land in Virginia. Governor McAuliffe moved quickly to implement the court ruling by Executive Order. In doing so, the governor emphasized the importance of marriage equality to the growth of Virginia’s economy.

“The highest priority of state government should be to guarantee every person’s right to live, learn, work, and do business, regardless of their race, gender, creed or sexual orientation … Same-sex marriage is now legal in Virginia,” McAuliffe said. “This is a historic and long overdue moment for our Commonwealth and our country … An open and welcoming environment is imperative to grow as a Commonwealth, and to build a new Virginia economy that will attract vital businesses, innovative entrepreneurs, and thriving families.

This week, Governor McAuliffe put out the welcome mat for those who felt that Indiana’s new law was bad for business. 

In a letter to The Indianapolis Star, McAuliffe encouraged companies and organizations to relocate businesses and events to Virginia. He cited Virginia’s many advantages that had previously earned the commonwealth recognition as best state for business. He emphasized Virginia’s commitment to non-discrimination and marriage equality as important factors in attracting the businesses and workforce needed for a successful economy: “In Virginia, we do not discriminate against our friends and neighbors, particularly those who are supporting local businesses and generating economic activity.”

In many instances, corporate America has taken a pass on participating directly in social change. Not this time. They see the bottom line impact and the need for their companies to attract a high-quality workforce.

Apple CEO Tim Cook responded to Indiana’s law by writing that, “Having laws on the books that would protect business owners from being sued for not providing services to gays and lesbians flies in the face of being ‘open for business.'”

Mark Benioff, CEO of rapidly growing Salesforce, added, “We’ve made significant investments in Indiana. We run major marketing events and conferences there. We’re a major source of income and revenue to the state of Indiana, but we simply cannot support this kind of legislation.”

The reactions of Cook, Benioff, and numerous other businesspeople and government officials in Indiana and around the nation show that discrimination is no longer just wrong, it’s also bad business. Our society has come a long way.

Paul Friedman is an attorney and a Board member of the Democratic Business Council of Northern Virginia.

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