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Is Your Morning Coffee Subsidizing Gay Marriage?

Consumers in the United States and around the world may well be wondering whether the money they pay for their daily lattes is going toward the support of same-sex marriage. Starbucks and several other large companies recently came out in favor of gay marriage in Washington state, which just passed a gay marriage bill.

Last year the coffee giant signed onto an amicus brief asking the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate the federal definition of marriage as one man and one woman. And a Jan. 25 public statement by Executive Vice President Kalen Holmes says gay marriage is “aligned with Starbucks business practices and upholds our belief in the equal treatment of partners. It is core to who we are and what we value as a company.” Gay marriage is “core” to the Starbucks brand? 

In making this announcement, Starbucks has exhibited an imprudent contempt for the diverse views of its vendors, employees, shareholders and customers – among whom there is no doubt a great deal of disagreement on the hot-button issue of gay marriage. Second, Starbucks is showing a contempt for ordinary business judgment, as publicly traded corporations’ duty to their shareholders should take precedence over the desire to weigh in on irrelevant and controversial social issues. 

Frankly, what happens in Seattle won’t just stay in Seattle. And in making the decision to equate the Starbucks brand with gay marriage, Starbucks is reneging on a promise it only recently made on its website. “Our more than 200,000 partners and business associates around the globe have diverse views about a wide range of topics,” reads a posting on the Starbucks website under the header “Starbucks Myths and Facts.” “Regardless of that spectrum of belief, Starbucks Coffee Company remains a non-political organization. We do not support any political or religious cause.” 

Will Starbucks coffee drinkers in Kuwait or Morocco really feel comfortable knowing they are now subsidizing controversial political causes? And why should those same coffee drinkers continue to believe the company’s assurances that Starbucks does not wade into political or religious issues? Finally, will Starbucks now similarly support the rights of those Muslim employees in Washington, for example, who wish to have their polygamous marriages treated equally by the state? Shareholders might want to ask that question at the March 21 shareholder meeting in Seattle

The proffered justification for the brief Starbucks signed asking the Court to overturn the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is that the federal definition of marriage means Starbucks has to make additional administrative efforts to equalize benefits for those employees in same-sex marriages. Starbucks argues that giving employees equal benefits not required by law somehow “strains the employer/employee relationship,” “forces employers to incur administrative burdens and expense,” and forces the employees to “affirm discrimination.” 

Starbucks admits the “workarounds” are feasible, and the number of employees affected is very small given the tiny and declining number of gay marriages that take place. Thus, the administrative burden of dealing with this small number hardly rises to a major business expense. At the very least the Starbucks board owes its shareholders an honest explanation as to how gay marriage is in their interests. 

Starbucks has exhibited a dramatic lack of sensitivity to the vast majority of those associated with its brand (employees, customers, shareholders) who hold contrary viewpoints about the socially and morally charged issue of marriage. Would a publicly traded company that cared about his fiduciary duty to its shareholders and stakeholders drag itself into a global fight over gay marriage? 

NOM’s Corporate Fairness Project is dedicated to the idea that all Americans, regardless of their views for or against gay marriage, should be treated fairly and equally in the workplace. Starbucks’ decision is a step in exactly the wrong direction. 

For more info on how you can communicate your views to Starbucks executives, go to www.DumpStarbucks.com

Jonathan Baker is the director of NOM’s Corporate Fairness Project

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