On marriage, America's business leaders say ‘equal is equal’

On marriage, America's business leaders say ‘equal is equal’

This week, more than 250 major corporations, cities and employers declared that same-sex marriage ought to be recognized under federal law everywhere in the United States. What brought about this dramatic shift? And why do some of America’s leading conservative institutions today embrace marriage equality?

That story actually began over three decades ago.

For the owners of the Village Voice in 1982, it was a simple question. Should we consider same-sex couples equally with married opposite sex couples when it comes to offering health care and other workplace benefits?

Yes, they agreed.

The Voice's management—and a growing army of Fortune 500 corporations three decades later—understand that ensuring fairness and equal treatment for all their employees is a bedrock in recruiting, hiring and retaining the best talent. Whether a worker is gay or straight, or bisexual or transgender, for many enlightened workplaces today, it just makes no difference. Talent is talent.

Just as important is how employers support a worker’s spouse or partner and family—and offer options to enable a worker to take care of family needs while remaining productive, focused and successful on the job. However if an employer leaves some families behind or makes them invisible, especially those headed by same-gender parents, stark gaps arise that hurt morale and motivation. And even erode the bottom line.

In 2013, that evolutionary decision (and many more that cascaded from other business leaders followed by states, cities, courts and legislators) has profound implications for the equal treatment of same-sex partners in the United States and ultimately for marriage equality. Today, the tide becomes revolutionary as hundreds of major corporations and jurisdictions publicly seek repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (also called DOMA) in federal courts and on Capitol Hill.

This, in fact, is the very day the U.S. Supreme Court has declared that briefs—for and against—must be filed for the arguments they will hear on two related cases—the outcome of California’s Prop 8 which banned same-sex marriages there as well as federal recognition of all same-sex marriages in the DOMA case.

Among the corporate and community leaders who have come out in favor of marriage equality and the end of DOMA are Microsoft, Google, Nike, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Orbitz, eBay, Xerox, Nike, Marriott, CBS, Aetna along with the cities of New York, Seattle, Hartford and Boston. More companies and leaders are joining ranks because the rewards far outweigh risks following dramatic changes in public opinion as well as market and political trends. They argue it is hurtful to their business mission. (Editor's note: the author represents Marriott through his public relations business, Witeck Communications.)

The Defense of Marriage Act, which Congress passed in 1996, was an ill-advised, reactionary attempt to build sea walls against even the hint of same-sex marriage. After all, it was not until 2004 that Massachusetts first made marriage licenses available to lesbian and gay couples.

Today, however, while same-sex couples may be married in nine states, as well as the District of Columbia and on two native American reservations, the Defense of Marriage Act bars the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages anywhere and does not allow the government to apply more than 1,100 rights and responsibilities related to marriage to same-sex couples.

Why do business leaders care?

Business leaders are not radical social engineers trying to define or redefine families. Far from it. They respond to basic pocketbook needs and real marketplace challenges, such as competition and the need to attract and retain top workers. Creating welcoming and inclusive work environments, where gay couples are treated exactly like married heterosexual couples, makes good business sense. Moreover, their customers and business partners support the same principles.

Consider also that under myriad federal laws, support is given to most—not all—American working families that deal with health care, survivorship, dependent care, protected leave, disability, family crises and retirement. These tested safety nets—many delivered through their employers’ cooperation, expense and supervision—can give families confidence about their own survival in the toughest circumstances.

Under DOMA’s heavy hand, however, employers and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) workforce they value, remain left behind. Worse, given the complexity and disparities of federal and state tax laws, employers must jerry-rig accounting, personnel and payroll procedures that isolate and deny their LGBT employees preferential tax treatment available to all other married couples and their families. For example, while employer-paid health benefits are tax deductible for married couples, this same benefit is unavailable to married or partnered same-sex couples who must pay thousands in out of pocket expenses to cover these taxes. Employers (and their LGBT employees) pay higher costs—in every sense—for maintaining this unequal and unfair administration, and it is no wonder so many today prefer fairer, simpler, lower-cost approaches that treat all workers and their families alike.

Keep in mind that our nation’s largest employer, the American military, discarded its onerous “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” blinders and now permits its LGBT workforce to be honest and open serving the nation. However, given the complex burden of DOMA combined with many outdated Defense Department regulations, military families headed by same-sex couples are barred from most of the life-rewarding and health-sustaining benefits that are available equally to all other military families including PX privileges, dependent health care and family counseling. While Leon Panetta, the outgoing Defense secretary, made a point to close this gap as best he could, even he and the Department of Defense declared that the DOMA still stands in the way of treating all couples and families alike. That hurtful gap mirrors what many other employers and workplaces already know: Separate is far from equal.

Fortunately, there lies a remedy. That can be done by overturning the Defense of Marriage Act at the U.S. Supreme Court and the legislative repeal by Congress, or even better, both. The White House and Department of Justice already consider the Act as unconstitutional, and to date, every lower federal court decision concurs. In March, the Supreme Court will hear the arguments first-hand, including a powerful amicus brief in opposition to DOMA signed by many of the nation’s top companies and municipalities.

America’s most successful companies have paved the way to workplace equality for all of their employees, straight and gay. It’s little surprise that so many major business leaders unite behind repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act to not merely respect all marriages, but also to motivate and support all of their employees equally. It’s a simple and longstanding business equation. You do the math.

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