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Arizona decides some beliefs come at too high a price

A funny thing happened right after Arizona's Republican-controlled legislature passed a bill that would have allowed businesses to reject gay customers on religious grounds. Three Republican state senators who had voted for the odious law urged Governor Jan Brewer, a fellow conservative Republican, to veto it.

They were joined by Arizona's Republican U.S. senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake, former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, five Republicans hoping to succeed Ms. Brewer in the next election, other prominent party faithful and the state chamber of commerce.

The sudden groundswell of opposition from within the party's own ranks had less to do with the moral repugnancy of the proposed legislation than the potential for a crippling economic blow in a state still suffering from the effects of the collapsed housing bubble and the worst recession since the 1930s.

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The surprising carriers of that forceful message were such corporate heavyweights as Apple Inc., American Airlines Group Inc., AT&T Inc., Delta Air Lines Inc., Marriott International Inc. and the National Football League, which has scheduled its next Super Bowl, the world's most lucrative single sports event, for Phoenix. Other states considering similar legislation are sure to face the same corporate pressures.

Taking an active role in social policy issues isn't unusual for Apple or other Silicon Valley companies. But wading directly into the deep waters of divisive, religion-soaked social debates is something of a recent phenomenon for others.

We witnessed the trend in full force last year when more than 270 major employers – including Apple, Starbucks, Google, Facebook, Walt Disney, Amazon, Microsoft and CBS – signed a brief calling on the Supreme Court to toss out the federal Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional. This either reflects an enlightened sensitivity in corner offices or the hard-nosed reality that the LGBT community (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered persons) has become too important to ignore – both as a market for goods and services and as a valuable source of employees.

When in doubt, always bet on economic interests coming first.

The LGBT community has been a potent commercial force for years, as any purveyor of travel, clothing, entertainment, cars and other products targeted at a young, urban, upscale market can attest.

At the same time, public acceptance of same-sex marriage and other rights has been growing across the U.S., despite strong opposition from religious groups and their political allies in Arizona and several other states. National support for same-sex marriage, for instance, edged into majority territory for the first time last year, reaching 51 per cent.

So it's not surprising that Arizona's important tourism sector would warn of serious economic consequences if the Governor failed to exercise her veto. The loss of the Super Bowl alone would cost hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenues and marketing opportunities.

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This is not idle speculation about an unlikely occurrence. In 1990, the National Football League moved the 1993 game out of Arizona after a referendum rejected making Martin Luther King day a state holiday. Norman Braman, chairman of the league's site selection committee at the time, said: "I think it would be an affront to our public and our players if the game was played there."

The NFL and other sports leagues used to pretend that none of their star athletes was anything but heterosexual. It didn't matter if they were drunks or deadbeats. But if they were gay, they had to stay tightly closeted or risk losing their livelihoods.

But all that has been changing. Last year, a respected National Basketball Association player became the first one to come out of the closet while still active. And a college football star has acknowledged he is gay in advance of the NFL draft. Both announcements were greeted positively by the leagues and fans.

After some reflection, Ms. Brewer did block the legislation, (titled, in Orwellian-speak, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act), observing that it had "the potential to create more problems than it purports to solve."

There's no argument about that.

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About the Author
Senior Economics Writer and Global Markets Columnist

Brian Milner is a senior economics writer and global markets columnist. In a long career at The Globe and Mail, he has covered diverse business beats, including international trade, the automotive industry, media, debt markets, banking and the business side of sports. More

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