By the time Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed his state’s “religious freedom bill” last week, scores of companies had spoken out against the legislation. Several opponents, including Delta Airlines, Disney and the NFL had gone further, threatening to reduce their investment in the state if the bill, which proponents said would protect religious freedom but critics say discriminates against the gay, lesbian and transgender communities, became law.
“The governor in Georgia, like the governor of South Dakota, vetoed this bill. And it’s because they listened to the business community, and they listened to their constituents,” said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a national advocacy group which opposed the legislation.
But in Mississippi, corporate repercussions were less certain. On Monday, seven weeks after the House approved Bill 1523, five days after the Senate approved it and only one day before Gov. Bryant signed it, the Human Rights Campaign compiled a list of statements from nearly a dozen companies disapproving of the bill. But none of these companies publicly threatened to change how they did business with the state if the bill became law.
“You know, Georgia is a hub for Hollywood, and I just think the businesses there are more nationally known, there are more national brands, and when they speak up you hear,” said Ben Needham, director of Project One America, a Deep South subsidiary of the Human Rights Campaign. “We don’t have that sort of national brand of businesses here.”
But the Human Rights Campaign’s list of statements opposing House Bill 1523 included Toyota, Tyson Foods and Nissan, each national companies employing thousands of Mississippians. As of Tuesday, none of these companies had taken action against the bill beyond releasing these statements.
Continental Tires, which announced in March that it was building a $1.45 billion plant in Mississippi, issued a statement Wednesday: “Continental is dedicated to promoting diversity and is against discrimination of any kind. We practice this core value in both the workplaces and in the communities we serve across the globe. We will continue to promote our core values throughout our current and future operations.”
The governor’s office did not respond to multiple calls and emails.
“I think the governor is an eternal optimist, and he thinks that Mississippi can do stupid things and not have the world care,” said Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson. “We’ve heard about organizations and states and cities that are talking about doing a travel ban on Mississippi. But when we start seeing investments pull out of the state, that’s when we’re going to wake up and join the 21st century.”
According to some legislators, the public outcry over the bill came as a surprise because they had heard no opposition from companies leading up to the vote.
“Now this thing’s on my desk about companies and different things,” said Sen. J.P. Wilemon, Jr., D-Belmont, on Monday, pointing to the list distributed by the Human Rights Campaign. “We didn’t hear a word about it until the bill passed.”
Wilemon is one of two Democrats who crossed party lines to vote for the bill. He and several members of the legislature noted that the push within Mississippi advocating passage of the bill was strong.
“I heard from many constituents, more from many who were supporting than were against it, several groups, mainly religious groups who were for the bill,” said Sen. Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg, who voted for the bill.
According to some legislators, the bill might have met more resistance in the Senate if the business community’s opposition had come in earlier and stronger.
“I think if there are large Mississippi employers that have a concern about a bill, members of the legislature need to know that before we vote,” said Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, who voted against the bill.
The initial strategy from a coalition of social policy groups involved opposition at the state level, urging companies to meet privately with members of the legislature and pressure them to vote down the legislation, according to Erik Fleming, director of advocacy and policy at the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU and Human Rights Campaign are part of that coalition opposing the bill along with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Planned Parenthood.
“I think there’s a certain amount that happens behind the scenes before companies decide to make public their opposition to a bill,” said Olivia Dalton, a senior vice president at the Human Rights Campaign. “And that may be also why you were seeing more of that happen now when it’s really at that crucial moment versus before when I think there’s a natural reason why a company might have wanted to lob a private call.”
Rob Hill, state director for the Human Rights Campaign in Mississippi, says the organization began building opposition to the legislation as soon as the House drafted the bill.
“We’ve definitely been engaged from the moment we saw this bill,” Hill said. “I met with the senate judiciary chair, met with Terry Burton pro temp, had a lobbyist at the capitol before the session. We made statements about this, but for some reason I don’t think people felt that sense of urgency until the bill passed the senate.”
Still, Sen. Russell Jolly, D-Houston, the other Democrat who voted for House Bill 1523, said that no companies and almost no constituents reached out to him before he voted last week.
“I want to say out of a hundred of them, 99 percent of them was against the bill,” Jolly said. “You gotta vote your district around here.”
Needham said it’s unlikely those numbers are accurate.
“I think that is a talking point from senators who want to provide cover to themselves to vote for this bill,” Needham said.
Hill said that the Human Rights Campaign had organized phone banks with thousands of volunteers. They also organized email and robo-call campaigns.
“What I did hear, a lot of them was these form emails,” Jolly said. “Lot of time when you see it, you just hit delete, delete. Say who are they, you know? My constituents, that’s who I listen to.”
Some opponents of the bill admit that until last week, the national attention went to similar bills in Georgia and North Carolina, much larger states. North Carolina’s was signed into law on March 23. Georgia’s governor vetoed his state’s bill March 28, two days before the state senate approved Mississippi’s bill.
“Unfortunately you have Georgia, you have North Carolina, doing the same thing,” said Needham. “And now they’re going, ‘Oh, this is going on in Mississippi.’”
Mississippi’s conservative history also made it harder to galvanize national opposition to the bill, according to Fleming.
“I think that was part of the concept, they just assumed Mississippi was a foregone conclusion,” Fleming said.
“I think if we were living in an almost perfect world and the only never-neverland was us, yeah there would have been a lot of attention, undue and positive,” Fleming said. “But it’s hard to predict whether, if we were the lone wolf, all the pressure from outside and inside and everywhere else could have stopped it.”
Still, some in the legislature say they can’t understand why companies wouldn’t have spoken out earlier, if they were truly invested in stopping the legislation.
“I do not think I heard from any corporate interests for or against the vote,” Hopson said. “I don’t know that it would have made a difference, but there’s always the chance that there’s some more enlightenment against it. Any time we get advocacy I try to heed their advice. Certainly that’s worthy of consideration when you’re debating how to vote on a bill.”