As the public awaits the U.S. Supreme Court’s highly anticipated same-sex marriage decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, Fortune 500 companies with LGBT-inclusive employment practices have already begun to set a trend in the business world.
In addition to pioneering the next generation of fashionable cell phones and innovative MP3 players, Apple (AAPL) has been an avid supporter of issues affecting its LGBT employees. Having extended benefits to same-sex couple decades ago, the company’s CEO Tim Cook recently identified himself as the first openly gay chief officer of a Fortune 500 company.
The Human Rights Campaign has consistently ranked Coca-Cola (KO) one of the best places to work for LGBT employees. And, seven of the top 10 Fortune 500 companies, including ExxonMobil (XOM) and Walmart (WMT), currently provide health benefits to same-sex spouses of their employees.
But companies like Target (TGT) and Walmart are not only doing; they are speaking. Walmart, having earned the coveted No. 1 spot on the Fortune 500 list, has been an outspoken supporter of LGBT rights, especially in its home state of Arkansas.
Indeed, over the past few years, as the judiciary struck down bans on same-sex marriage and municipalities adopted LGBT-protective anti-discrimination laws, conservative states pushed back with the adoption of robust religious freedom laws. Against this backdrop, last May, the Arkansas Legislature passed an expansive religious freedom law that had been the topic of a heated public debate. After Walmart and Target urged Governor Asa Hutchinson to veto the law, Hutchison sent it back to the Legislature to amend the bill. The state dodged a bullet when the governor signed a new bill that mirrored its federal parent.
When Indiana passed an even more controversial religious freedom law that would have exempted business owners with religious objections from serving same-sex couples, Apple, Nike (NKE) and Walmart threatened to cease doing business in the state. The pressure felt from these socially minded businesses eventually forced lawmakers to weaken the dangerous law.
From my home state of Arkansas, as I observed the political activism of mega-corporations, I began to wonder when businesses became advocates with political agendas and talking points on issues that arise out of the tension between religion and civil rights.
In 2014, when the clash between religious exercise and civil rights reached its apex, the family-owned corporation Hobby Lobby asserted religious objections to justify its refusal to pay for insurance coverage for contraception. The nation’s highest court upheld Hobby Lobby’s objections, opining that businesses may seek an exemption from a law that would otherwise require them to act in a way that was inconsistent with their religious beliefs. The Court’s watershed decision was a turning point, recognizing business entities as personalities with religious identities and beliefs.
Despite my aversion to the corporation-as-a-person ruling, I noticed a significant shift in the business community’s reaction to hot-button social issues. With Hobby Lobby citing religion to justify its opposition to the Affordable Care Act’s HHS Mandate, Walmart took a stand on issues materializing at the opposite end of the civil rights spectrum, speaking in favor of same-sex marriage and other LGBT-related concerns.
As the public gained insight into the ideals of the businesses they support, the obvious question for the corporate world became – did a business’s position on a controversial issue threaten its bottom dollar? And when businesses take a stance on a political or social issue, how do they fare in the court of public opinion?
In the case of Hobby Lobby and Walmart, both corporations fared just fine. In fact, Walmart reported a revenue increase of $9.4 billion, or 2%, during the 2015 fiscal year.So, it appears that the marketplace of ideas enhances the competitive marketplace.
As the nation’s highest court is on the cusp of issuing a groundbreaking civil rights ruling in favor of marriage equality, mega-corporations like Coca-Cola, Target, Johnson & Johnson, Starbucks, Apple and Walmart have already been practicing – and preaching – inclusiveness in the workplace. Regardless of whether this particular message is good for their public image, these highly successful businesses have become trendsetters in the corporate world, standing up for what is right and leading by example. When the Court’s decision upholding marriage equality comes out at the end of this month, the nation’s top businesses can say they were ahead of the curve.
Danielle Weatherby is an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas School of Law. Her research focuses on First Amendment jurisprudence and emerging legal protections for transgender individuals.