“Religious Liberty” and Big Business in the South

Yesterday, the always excellent Bill Lindsey asked why the business community in Arkansas didn’t come out against that state’s sweeping anti-LGBT law as it did in other states where similar legislation was proposed (see http://bilgrimage.blogspot.com/2015/02/quote-for-day-itsnotover-backlash-is.html). I wrote a response to this question on the post itself, but I want to expand my thoughts on this matter into a full post.

One reason why Arizona didn’t pass its own “religious freedom restoration act” or whatever ridiculous name it had was because big companies like Apple and American Airlines were threatening not to expand into the state if the bill became law (see http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/2/26/brewer-gay-law.html). While a similar outcome happened in Georgia, which is home to many Atlanta-based Fortune 500 companies as well as a well-organized LGBT community, but the Georgia Republican party seems dead set on trying to get a “religious freedom bill” passed, since another such bill is coming up for consideration (http://thegavoice.com/say-hello-second-religious-freedom-bill-georgia-legislature/). I’m hopeful that companies like Coca-Cola, UPS, and Georgia Power will help nip this bill in the bud, and kill off this “religious freedom bill.” However, in Arkansas, the “religious freedom bill” was proposed and passed with little fanfare or opposition from the business community. What explains the difference?

As Mr. Lindsey indicates in his post, Arkansas is home to a number of big businesses, but they are the type that generate large profits for the families that own them and poverty wages for the people who work for them: Tyson Foods, Wal-Mart, Dillards. These are essentially nineteenth century businesses operating in the twenty-first century. The families that own these companies are deeply involved in local conservative politics so they can continue with their robber baron ways, undeterred by regulations or labor unions. For the above mentioned companies, an anti-LGBT — or even a pro-LGBT law for that matter — is completely irrelevant to the operation of their respective businesses, because they view their workforce, which is mostly poor and of color, as being completely inter-changeable. Plus, these companies mostly make and sell basic commodities and the demand for these items won’t be affected based on either the Arkansas political environment or whatever the beliefs of the owners in question might be. If, say, the Tyson family turned out to have the same views on contraception as the Hobby Lobby family, it wouldn’t matter because it’s not like slaughterhouse workers are getting any kind of health benefits in the first place. Similarly, it wouldn’t matter if Tyson slaughterhouses were screening out LGBT workers, because there are plenty of low-skilled rural Arkansas residents who will fill their place without asking any questions.

However, the governor of Arkansas insists that this “religious freedom bill” is for the benefit of the business community. If the bill isn’t for the benefit of major conglomerates like Wal-Mart or Tyson foods, then who is it for? I think the supposed beneficiaries of the “religious freedom bill” are supposed to be small “Christian businesses” who are heavily dependent on the opinions of the conservative majority to survive. Whatever the sins of large corporation might be, they don’t have to bend to whim of local prejudices to the same extent, because negative publicity at a store in Mississippi will have repercussions in stores in other places, not to mention the bottom line of the shareholders.

To be frank, many Southerners don’t want multinational companies like Apple relocating to their states, not because they are anti-capitalist or against big business per se, but because they want to keep the South a closed region. Until the Civil Rights Movement, the South was regarded as something like another country, because its character was very different than the rest of the country. Part of this had to do with the fact that the region was extremely rural, but also because of the high concentration of black people; I believe that for most of the twentieth century that eighty percent of blacks lived in the states of the old confederacy. The racial dynamics in the rural South have traditionally been like that of a cult or a dysfunctional family, where nobody new comes in and nobody leaves, causing everyone to be stuck together in a toxic brew of resentment, fear, and violence. Since the civil rights era, more outsiders have been moving into the South, much to the consternation of people who miss “the Old South” (however that’s defined).  When a large company like Apple sets up shop in a particular location, a plethora of outsiders will inevitably settle in said place, which isn’t good if you’re trying to keep the place in question a monoculture. Furthermore, big companies will do exactly what they did in Arizona, which is defeating laws that are harmful to their self-interest, even if supposed Christian voters favor the laws in question. The logic we see in Arkansas and elsewhere is that a business isn’t worth having if the opinions of conservative Christians can’t force it to conform to “Biblical principles.”

I have no illusions that big companies are more friendly to LGBT rights out of a principled belief in human rights (IKEA, for example, is LGBT friendly in the West, but considerably less so in Islamic countries so as not to offend the locals). Much of it has to do with a desire to simplify paperwork, since it’s a pain to have to deal with the red tape when their employees Adam and Steve, who are married in New York, have to locate to Texas, which does not recognize same-sex unions. What benefits do Adam and Steve get? What types of forms do they fill out? How are their children, if any, classified? From a corporate HR point of view, it’s much easier if all couples, straight or gay, have the same status and the same benefits.

Perhaps the best way to combat these “religious freedom bills” when they pass is to do what scrappy pro-LGBT rights supporters did in Mississippi. Astute readers may recall that a so-called “restoration of religious freedom bill” passed in Mississippi last year, largely without fanfare. In response, some business owners in places like Jackson and Oxford put stickers on their windows that said to the effect that they didn’t discriminate against LGBT consumers and that if they wanted to spend money, they were prepared to take it. This campaign infuriated the anti-LGBT Christian contingent, who claimed that these stickers were discriminating against them by implying that they were homophobic (see http://www.washingtonblade.com/2014/07/11/business-owners-challenge-anti-gay-miss-law/). It’s not much, but I think these stickers send a potent message about who the real victims of “religious liberty” are