Target Corp. has for the first time come out publicly in support of gay marriage, as a growing number of high-profile businesses take positions on the divisive issue.

In revealing Tuesday that it had signed a court brief backing marriage equality in a ­pending court case, Target joins other blue-chip names such as Starbucks, Apple and Intel that have sided publicly with same-sex marriage advocates in court cases or ballot issues.

"It is our belief that everyone should be treated equally under the law, and that includes rights we believe individuals should have related to marriage," ­Target's human resource chief, Jodee Kozlak, said in a posting on the company's blog.

The public statement was an unusual move in Minnesota's corporate community. Virtually all of Minnesota's biggest companies declined to take a position on a 2012 referendum to ban gay marriage in Minnesota, except General Mills, which opposed the ban. The referendum failed narrowly, and the state Legislature passed a bill recognizing gay marriage in 2013.

Gay rights activists in Minnesota and across the country welcomed Target's willingness to add its name to a legal defense of gay marriage.

"Today Target joins a growing chorus of Americans and businesses that know these bans on marriage equality serve no purpose other than to harm families," said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights lobbying group. "Discrimination should have no place in our society, much less our laws."

Phil Duran, legal director of OutFront Minnesota, which worked hard to defeat the state's referendum to ban gay marriage, called Target "a powerful voice."

A spokeswoman for the Minnesota Family Council, which led the charge against gay marriage in the state, predicted that the move will backfire.

"This is a very risky business decision and ultimately the wrong one because it is families that shop at Target," Autumn Leva said. "People in Minnesota are still deeply divided on this issue."

A Star Tribune Minnesota poll last year found that 46 percent of Minnesotans supported legislators' efforts to legalize same-sex marriage but that 44 percent were opposed. Another 10 percent were undecided.

Gay marriage has been a source of controversy for some of the state's major corporate players since Target, Best Buy and 3M donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to an organization that supported Republican Tom Emmer in the 2010 Minnesota governor's race. Emmer is a vocal opponent of gay marriage.

While all three companies said their donations were meant to favor pro-business candidates, Target suffered much more than the other two as gay rights activists singled out the company for harsh criticism and boycott threats.

Since then, Target, which has long offered benefits to same-sex partners of employees, has worked its way back into the good graces of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Target scored a perfect 100 in the Human Rights Campaign 2014 Corporate Equality Index.

Even so, while hundreds of companies signed on to legal briefs asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a federal gay marriage ban in a case heard in 2014, Target did not. The company had not publicly backed legal protections of same-sex marriage until Tuesday.

The case Target chose for its endorsement of same-sex marriage rights is set for an Aug. 26 hearing in the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The case combines legal actions involving Wisconsin and Indiana. Federal district judges overturned gay marriage bans in both states, and state officials appealed.

The brief that Target said it had signed was scheduled to be filed Tuesday afternoon, a few hours after the company announced its position. The company did not make a copy of the brief available. Kozlak did not discuss details of the filing in her blog post.

She wrote that "current laws — in places like Wisconsin and Indiana that are addressed in this brief — make it difficult to attract and retain talent. These disparate laws also create confusing and complicated benefits challenges across multiple states."

Jim Spencer • 202-383-6123