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Gay rights activists turn to Fortune 500

Gay rights activists have enlisted the support of dozens of Fortune 500 companies in their push to move anti-discrimination legislation through Congress. [WATCH VIDEO]

Big-name companies such as Dow Chemical Co., Marriott International and Procter & Gamble are backing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which is expected to pass the Senate this week with GOP support.

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Supporters of ENDA hope the show of strength in corporate America will sway House Republicans who are skeptical of the need to create workplace protections for sexual orientation or gender identity.

“We believe that this strategy of businesses joining together to make the case has been a successful one to date,” said Bryan McCleary, a spokesman for Procter & Gamble.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) this week reiterated his opposition to ENDA, stating through a spokesman that it would “increase frivolous litigation and cost American jobs.”

Advocates for the bill are trying to counter those arguments by noting that many major companies already have internal policies in place to prevent discrimination.

“Government is finally catching up to where the private sector has been for years. It enables companies to attract the most talented workforce and allows their employees to not have to worry about discrimination,” said Jeff Cook-McCormac, a senior adviser to the American Unity Fund.

Over the years, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) has organized brand-name firms under the banner of the Business Coalition for Workforce Fairness, which supports ENDA.

The group ran ads in Beltway publications on Monday touting business support for the anti-discrimination bill. The HRC has secured ENDA endorsements from Apple, Intel, Groupon and The Hershey Co., among others.

“The overwhelming support from the business community clearly signals ENDA is about employee fairness, not partisan politics.

A strong majority of Republican voters, nationally and in key states, strongly support employment protections,” said Fred Sainz, the HRC’s vice president of communications.

Advocates also say ENDA would be good for business.

A slideshow on the HRC’s website makes the “business case” for anti-discrimination policy by saying it “eliminates inconsistency” and “reinforces corporate reputation” for fairness. The group estimates that 88 percent of Fortune 500 companies have policies in place to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation.

“If the concern is the business community’s response, we want to show that we are comfortable and that this is consistent with our internal policies already in place,” said Thomas Maloney, director of government affairs for Marriott, which reported lobbying on ENDA last quarter.

“Any time you can achieve a national, consistent policy, that’s good for the business community,” Maloney said.
Lobbyists backing ENDA are facing strong opposition from conservatives groups such as Heritage Action for America and the Family Research Council.

Peter Sprigg, senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council, said the bill is “a threat to religious liberty and an attack on traditional values.”

“For business to actively lobby for this bill is something that I don’t understand. They have the power to write their own non-discrimination policy. Why do they want to force other companies to adopt this policy as well?” Sprigg said.

In a key-vote alert sent Friday advising lawmakers to vote against the bill, Heritage Action said ENDA would trample upon business owners’ civil liberties and could hurt job creation “because it would increase government interference in the labor market.”

Supporters of ENDA dispute that argument, and point to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that details discrimination lawsuits in the 22 states that have ENDA-like protections in place.

Christian Berle, Freedom to Work’s legislative director, said his group has met with nearly every GOP senator and they “have been reassured that ENDA does not apply to small businesses, and that the recent [GAO study] shows that the numbers of lawsuits filed under state-level ENDAs have been very modest in number.”

Supporters of ENDA have also noted that many of Washington’s most powerful industry groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, haven’t taken a position on the bill.

“Since ENDA’s introduction, the Chamber has been in contact with proponents of the bills, both on the Hill and off. Consistent with our prior positions on the bill, the Chamber remains neutral on ENDA,” said Blair Latoff Holmes, a Chamber spokeswoman.

Representatives for the Business Roundtable, the Federation of Independent Business and the National Association of Manufacturers also told The Hill that their groups haven’t taken a position.

“The fact that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Business, the National Association of Manufacturers, all staunch defenders of free enterprise, are not actively opposed to ENDA is a critical part of our pitch to Republican offices,” Berle said.

Some conservative activist groups that have sway with the GOP, such as the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks, are neutral on ENDA, according to their representatives.

A massive campaign is underway to have the anti-discrimination bill land on President Obama’s desk. Last week, Americans for Workplace Opportunity flooded state offices with postcards in support of ENDA to lobby senators from Arizona, Arkansas, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

“Business has been and will continue to be an essential ally in passing ENDA,” said Campbell Spencer, the group’s coalition director.

So far, 195 House members, including five Republicans, have backed the House version of the bill, according to Brian Branton, chief of staff for Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), ENDA’s main sponsor.

“We have a target list and we are going to try to build off this momentum to grab as many House Republicans as we can,” said Branton, referring to the progress in the Senate.

The race is now on to find a majority in the House for ENDA to force Boehner’s hand.

“The next task is finding those 218 votes,” said Cook-McCormac with American Unity Fund.