(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Rep. Paul Stam (R) of Wake, speaks on the House floor as North Carolina lawmakers gather for a special session Wednesday, March 23, 2016 in Raleigh, N.C. Lawmakers stopped a new Charlotte ordinance set to take effect April 1 that gives protections to transgender people to use the restroom of their gender identity.

LGBT rights: Why Republicans and big corporations are on different sides

North Carolina has taken the most aggressive stance so far against the expansion of gender rights. But major corporations are objecting at Republican efforts to curb LGBT rights.

The rushed passage of a bill in North Carolina that includes barring towns and cities from allowing transgender women to use the ladies’ room pushes the boundaries of state-sanctioned bigotry, several US corporations, including the National Basketball Association, complained this week.

For his part, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory said the Republican-led legislature called a special session to gut an anti-discrimination ordinance in Charlotte because that ordinance was dangerous and “defied common sense.”

The moves in conservative states to take a stand against LGBT rights are in many cases heartfelt and morality-bound, and for many Americans supersede the arguments about impacts on economic development. In other words, if the NBA yanks next year’s All-Star game from Charlotte, as it has suggested it might, it’s a worthy sacrifice in the eyes of North Carolina lawmakers.

In some ways, as the costly backlash to an Indiana religious liberty bill a year ago suggested, taking a stand for religious values in the public square puts the Republican party on an increasingly high-stakes collision course with a core constituency – US corporations, including major sports leagues.

In the past two decades, many US companies have gone from historically cautious to outright activist on social issues in order to appeal to shoppers, especially Millennials, who increasingly buy products that align with their values. And 18 states and 200 towns and cities have added specific LGBT non-discrimination protections. 

With the Wednesday vote, North Carolina has now taken what is widely seen as the most aggressive stance so far against the expansion of rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender citizens. Meanwhile, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) has until May 3 to decide whether to sign a religious liberty bill that’s been decried as discriminatory by the NFL, Disney, and other corporations. Seven other states are now looking at joining Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina in making sure that any transgender person who uses a bathroom not assigned to their sex at birth is punished.

Writing about the building tension, Emory University law professor Tim Holbrook noted on CNN this week that “both Georgia and North Carolina have marketed themselves as being good for business. Indiana apparently was not a big enough canary in the coal mine.”

The producers of the popular AMC channel TV show “Walking Dead” have threatened to pull up stakes in Georgia if Governor Deal signs a bill protecting people with "sincere religious beliefs" from denying services to gay people. Disney stated it will “take our business elsewhere” if “discriminatory practices [are] signed into law.”

Companies ranging from Biogen to Dow Chemicals raised objections to the North Carolina law. Facebook, Google, and Apple have objected and each run massive data-processing complexes in western North Carolina, but have not threatened to pull out of the state.

In Missouri, PETCO is among a slew of businesses asking lawmakers to abandon a similar religious liberty bill.

In Georgia, Mr. Deal stands between rural conservatives pushing for the religious liberty legislation and business groups in Atlanta that say the bill could undo years of hard work in drawing major corporations to the hub of the South.

“Georgia has worked so hard to be a great place for business to come and relocate – it’s mind-boggling that they would jeopardize all that,” Dan Rafter, who works with the gay rights group Freedom for All Americans, told MSNBC this week.

Both bills go further than the religious freedom law signed by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence last spring, which ended up costing the state at least $60 million in convention and tourism revenue, even after it was narrowed to include more protections for LGBT people.

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper – who is running against Mr. McCrory for governor – said that "we should not be putting our economy in jeopardy."

The NFL has warned Georgia, which is helping the Atlanta Falcons build a new downtown stadium, that it may be out of the running for hosting the Super Bowl in 2019, an event that by some estimates had a nearly $800 million boost on the Arizona economy last year.

While Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer didn’t cite it specifically, warnings from the NFL and other corporations likely played at least some role in her vetoing a religious liberty legislation in 2014. She said such a law would have created “unintended and negative consequences.” 

"What's interesting there is that companies or brands are becoming so essential to people's lives that they're playing a role in these big social debates," Deborah Small, a marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, told NBC News.

Whether corporations like Disney, PayPal, or American Airlines will actually take action based on anti-LGBT rules is a gamble that North Carolina, at least, has shown it’s willing to take.

Economic losses in Indiana also didn’t keep the Indiana legislature in January from rejecting a bill that would have extended non-discrimination protections to transgender people. In Indiana today, a person's sexual orientation or gender identity can be cited as a legal reason to turn someone away from housing or a place of business.

And overall, the $60 million in tourism losses hardly made a dent in the state’s $4.5 billion tourist industry. Pence’s office said in January that Indiana remained a “welcoming” state that had seen many organizations expand their event. One of those events include the NFL scouting combine.

Indeed, what remains uncertain as states like North Carolina push back against gender rights is how far corporations are willing to go in protest of such laws.

After all, the NFL is still holding next year’s Super Bowl in Houston, which late last year rejected a civil rights ordinance aimed at protecting LGBT citizens. “How much heavy lifting are [corporations like the NFL] willing to do?” asked Outsports editor Cyd Ziegler in an interview with MSNBC.

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