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Commentary: The Price of Prejudice

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Compliments of Conde Nast Portfolio Magazine

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Commentary: The Price of Prejudice

by Editors Jun 16 2008

Fostering tolerance and diversity is important to recruit, retain, and motivate the best and brightest.

Thanks to the recent decision by the California Supreme Court, we expect gay marriage will again be an issue this election year. On their November ballots, California voters will be asked to amend the state?s constitution, in effect overturning the court?s legalization of same-sex marriage. It should be quite a fight.

Gay marriage may appear to be one of those cultural issues that should be of no concern to a business mag?azine. But we feel strongly that Californians face a defining moment that is as much about their economy as it is about their social mores. Ever since the 17th-century Dutch Golden Age, during which freedom of religion flourished, it?s been clear that a tolerant society respectful of individual autonomy makes for a prosperous society where creative entrepreneurship thrives. Today, attitudes toward gay rights are an important barometer of a society?s broader tolerance and diversity, and arguably nothing is more central to individual fulfillment than the choice of a loved one with whom to build a life together. This is why all good capitalists should join us in supporting gay marriage.

The economic case for same-sex marriage often sounds like a pitch for another stimulus package: Allow gays to marry and so many more billions will be spent throughout the economy on weddings, gift registries, and travel. But that argument is far too narrow. Corporate America understands that fostering tolerance and diversity is important in order to recruit, retain, and motivate the best and the brightest. Twenty-six years ago, the Village Voice, a New York newspaper, became the first U.S. employer to offer benefits to the same-sex partners of its employees; now more than 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies do so. Among the 10 largest U.S. companies, only Exxon Mobil and Wal-Mart do not provide domestic-partner benefits. It may be no coincidence that the current centers of technological innovation in the United States?the San Francisco Bay Area, Boston, and Austin, to name a few?are among the nation?s most receptive places to gays.

Sadly, government is often behind the curve in this area?in part because polls show that a majority of Americans oppose same-sex marriage. The 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act disallowed partner benefits for public employees. Massachusetts permits gay marriage, and a handful of states recognize civil unions or domestic partnerships, but other states are openly hostile to the concept and go so far as to limit what same-sex-partner benefits companies can offer. If you run a large company with operations in many states, good luck trying to transfer gay married employees from Boston to a state where their spouses will be considered by law to be total strangers to their kids.

The problem is magnified at the global level. As more countries, from Canada to Spain to South Africa, legalize gay marriage and grant gay couples greater legal equality generally, the U.S. could lose the competitive advantage of being the world?s beacon of entrepreneur-nurturing tolerance. In an ever-shrinking world with increasingly mobile talent, intolerance is bad for business.

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