Could Citizens United Be Good for Marriage Equality?

The U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision that Citizens United applies with equal force to state and local elections could open the door even wider for corporations to play a significant role in the marriage-equality debate. In the November election four states -- Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington -- will allow voters to decide whether their gay and lesbian citizens can marry. Corporations can now provide unlimited financial resources to support such initiatives, as well as the candidates who support or reject them, and ultimately influence the outcome.

Past ballot initiatives have shown that not all politics is local. National organizations and businesses have often outspent local groups by a large margin. In 2008 the California Prop 8 campaign shattered spending records for social-policy initiatives, and much of the $83 million poured in from national organizations. Likewise, in 2009 outside groups contributed millions of dollars to the successful repeal of Maine's marriage-equality law. National groups have also sought to influence judicial elections. The three Iowa Supreme Court Justices who joined the decision that declared unconstitutional Iowa's ban on same-sex marriage were ousted in an election that saw an incredible influx of outside money. These numbers undermine any argument that marriage equality is a "states' rights" issue. National organizations, including business, are increasingly underwriting these ballot measures.

Recently, however, businesses have recognized that marriage equality may provide an economic benefit. A 2009 study reported that marriage equality has provided Massachusetts with a $100-million boost to its economy. A similar study reported that Iowa experienced $13 million in new spending after the Supreme Court overturned its marriage ban. During the New York debates, business leaders sent a letter to the legislatures urging them to pass the marriage-equality bill. They argued that to attract the necessary talent, "great states and cities must demonstrate a commitment to creating an open, healthy and equitable environment in which to live and work." And the Congressional Budget Office issued a report that projected an increase in approximately $1 billion a year if all 50 states recognized marriage between same-sex couples.

Perhaps even more significantly, businesses are realizing that active opposition to equality issues can have a detrimental effect on their bottom line, or, at the very least, create a public-relations problem. Target, a company with its headquarters in Minnesota, came under attack in 2010 for its $150,000 donation to a group that was running ads that supported a gubernatorial candidate who opposed marriage equality. After the donation came to light, groups urging consumers to boycott Target sprung up on Facebook, and the video of a mother with a gay son returning her Target purchases in protest went viral. When the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce came under attack for its support of a bill that would prohibit local anti-discrimination legislation, individual companies that served on the board were forced to issue statements that they did not agree with the Chamber's positions.

While the evidence is mixed on whether boycotts effectively change corporate behavior, one thing is clear: Corporations are invested in showcasing their equality pedigree. Even Bill Marriott, owner of the Marriott hotel chain, felt it necessary to promote his company's commitment to diversity after he was linked to the Mormon Church's contributions to the Prop 8 campaign. Gay and lesbian organizations are now finding corporate sponsors to fund their efforts. American Airlines, Citigroup, and Microsoft are all platinum partners of the Human Rights Campaign, an organization that advocates for LGBT rights. But supporting equality initiatives is not without risks, as JCPenney discovered when it chose Ellen DeGeneres as its spokesperson and published ads depicting families with same-sex parents. Kraft Foods heard from upset customers after it unveiled its rainbow-filled Oreo cookie on Facebook. But it is a calculated risk that more corporations appear to be taking. While both Kraft and JCPenney faced backlash, they also received overwhelming support for their decisions.

Until Citizens United is overturned -- and I hope it is, because unchecked corporate money corrupts the political and social marketplace of democracy -- some good may come from the decision. As corporations increasingly seek consumer dollars through gay-friendly advertising and diversity initiatives, they should use those dollars to support equality legislation and the candidates who support such initiatives. In the end, maybe corporate political money unleashed by an unsound legal ruling can be used to help bend the arc of history toward justice.

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