Reflecting how far the corporate world has shifted on gay rights in recent years, three of the leading groups opposed to same-sex marriage have recently written letters and press releases urging corporations to remain "neutral" on marriage.
The National Organization for Marriage sent a letter in May to nearly a hundred Minnesota businesses requesting they keep out of the debate over a state constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage that will appear on state ballots in November.
"We do not request that you endorse our efforts to protect the age-old definition of what is a marriage, but only that you stay neutral and respect the conscience rights of your customers and employees who are on both sides of this issue," the letter read.
The Family Research Council and One Million Moms, two other groups devoted to fighting same-sex marriage, have followed suit in the last few weeks, with the council's petition asking Target to "take a position of neutrality" on marriage and the moms' urging a J.C. Penney boycott until the company becomes "neutral in the culture war."
J.C. Penney and Target are just two among many companies that have recently signaled their support for gay rights. Last year, brand names like Microsoft, Starbucks and Google were among 48 corporations signing a brief arguing to the federal appeals court in Boston that the Defense of Marriage Act was bad for business. In New York, corporations were influential in persuading legislators to pass a bill legalizing same-sex marriage.
There is nothing new about advocacy groups lobbying corporations to take one position or another on social issues, but with ballot measures on marriage in four states this fall, the stakes in winning corporate support are higher than ever for both sides of the debate.
Jonathan Baker of the National Organization for Marriage said he believes that when a company takes a public stand on same-sex marriage, "it has a chilling effect on the ability of employees to speak out." To respect the diverse views of their customers, employees and shareholders, corporations must stay neutral, he said.
Baker was hired in 2011 to head up the advocacy group's Corporate Fairness Project, created because "an increasing number of advocates of same-sex marriage were requesting corporations take a stand," he said. "What we're trying to do is make sure that corporate culture really doesn't swing that far."
One corporate communications expert observed that requesting neutrality, rather than urging corporations to take the advocates' side, is suggestive of how much views have changed. "It indicates that they have weighed the odds of getting what they want achieved vs. the stop-gap tactic," said Irving Schenkler, director of the management communication program at New York University's Stern School of Business.
"Asking companies to remain neutral is a realistic tactic. The fact that many companies aren't doing it is quite meaningful," Schenkler continued. "Corporations are rarely in the forefront of raising banners to change the world."
This week, General Mills, one of Minnesota's 10 largest companies, came out against the marriage amendment. In its letter to Minnesota businesses, the National Organization for Marriage argued that same-sex marriage has "little to do with your corporate mission to serve customers, earn profits, and provide good jobs." But General Mills and many other companies have disagreed, contending that public statements on gay rights can actually help them attract top talent and consumer loyalty.
Tom Forsythe, vice president for corporate communications at General Mills, said the company does not normally take positions on ballot measures but felt this issue was important enough to speak out on. "We have long worked to create an inclusive culture that welcomes and values the contributions of all," Forsythe wrote in an email. "We believe it is important for Minnesota to be viewed as inclusive and welcoming as well. We do not believe the proposed amendment is in the best interest of our state, our business or our employees -- and as a Minnesota-based company we oppose it."
Starbucks, a company that has spoken in support of same-sex marriage in Washington state where it is headquartered and where another marriage amendment looms on the ballot this fall, has been the target of a National Organization for Marriage-driven boycott for several months. In the letter to Minnesota businesses, Baker argued that Starbucks is now experiencing "public backlash" and warned that the Corporate Fairness Project will be watching to see how they respond. According to Baker, 45,000 customers have joined the Starbucks boycott so far.
But the coffee giant has not budged. "We've seen no impact on our business," said spokesman Zack Hutson of the boycott. "We deeply respect the views of our partners and customers and are always listening," he added. "But at the end of the day, it's a decision that we made through the lens of humanity that we feel is consistent with our culture."
A spokesperson at the Human Rights Campaign, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy group that tracks corporations' positions on gay rights, said business has made huge strides over the past decade. In 2002, the first year the campaign published its Corporate Equality Index -- which evaluates anti-discrimination policies, domestic partnership offerings, LGBT or diversity group resources for employees and public commitment to the LGBT community, among other things -- only 13 businesses achieved a score of 100 percent. This year, nearly 200 snagged the top rating.
Fred Sainz, the Human Rights Campaign's vice president for communications and marketing, predicted the requests for neutrality were doomed to fail. "The National Organization for Marriage is really trying hard to say, 'Do not let the waves of water run free,'" Sainz said, "but I think that very soon they're going to be overcome by the tide of corporate activism on this."