The United States is in the midst of a rapid social transformation for the better, as same-sex couples are now allowed to marry in 37 states and the U.S. Supreme Court is set to weigh in this summer on a case that could legalize gay marriage nationwide.
The speed with which this civil rights revolution has swept the nation is welcome. But the swell of support makes it easy to forget that deep divisions remain over this issue. Recently, those differences surfaced in Indiana, where Republican Gov. Mike Pence signed a controversial “religious freedom” law. Opponents of the measure fear that, among other things, it could allow businesses to refuse service to gay couples, even though Indiana now permits same-sex marriage in compliance with federal court rulings. By some estimates, there are dozens of measures in other states seeking to create legal loopholes for discrimination like this against same-sex couples.
While other states and the federal government have long had religious freedom laws similar to Indiana’s in place, the Hoosier State’s legislation comes as public support for gay marriage has hit critical mass. The high-profile, high-intensity criticism of Indiana and Pence is about much more than events in a single state. It’s about ending this form of discrimination everywhere.
Strong leadership is needed to convince doubters that same-sex marriage rights are built upon this nation’s bedrock value of equality. That’s why it’s reassuring to see a model that worked in Minnesota — where business and sports leaders helped defeat the 2012 gay-marriage-ban constitutional amendment — being brought to bear again in the wake of the Indiana law’s signing.
Over the past week, prominent business executives have stepped up nationally to make it clear that Indiana’s pushing to enshrine this type of discrimination is badly out of step with the business community and that it is putting economic development at risk. Executives from Angie’s List have suspended a substantial expansion in Indiana — a Rust Belt state that badly needs the 1,000 jobs now in jeopardy. On Monday, Apple CEO Tim Cook penned a passionate Washington Post commentary, making it clear that discriminatory laws like Indiana’s “truly will hurt jobs, growth and the vibrancy of parts of the country where a 21st-century economy was once welcomed with open arms.’’
Former NBA star Charles Barkley also leveraged his high-profile position as a commentator for NCAA men’s basketball over the weekend to weigh in against the Indiana law.
High-profile support like this matters. In Minnesota, business leaders such as travel magnate Marilyn Carlson Nelson and sports celebrities such as former Viking Chris Kluwe not only helped defeat the gay marriage amendment, but they also helped pave the way for the Legislature to enact a law authorizing gay marriage the following year. The pragmatic arguments they made, as well as their personal credibility, helped reassure the state that recognizing same-sex marriage was just and necessary.
Change, even for the best, is always difficult. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling this summer on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage bans could potentially establish this civil right in other states where deep divisions endure. Cook and others need to follow up their outrage over Indiana with sustained activism. Leadership by business and sports figures helped win over Minnesotans. It will be even more critical in winning hearts and minds elsewhere.