Speaking out against the marriage amendment
Published by Bill George in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune on Sunday, May 20, 2012.
Now that the debate over the Vikings stadium is settled, taking center stage is an issue that has far graver consequences for Minnesota's future: the marriage amendment.
President Obama's unqualified support for same-sex marriage came on the heels of North Carolina's overwhelming vote to pass a constitutional amendment banning it. In Minnesota, the actual ballot question is whether to prohibit same-sex marriage in Minnesota's Constitution.
But even if the amendment fails, same-sex marriage will remain illegal in Minnesota by statute.
This is not a religious issue, because churches, synagogues and mosques have the right in any case to determine whom they will marry.
My interest in this issue is twofold. First, I believe in freedom of association for all Minnesotans. Second, as a former CEO of Medtronic, I know firsthand how important and challenging it is to recruit and retain talented people. Doing so requires a culture that accepts people as they are -- not in spite of differences, but because of them.
Defeating this amendment is essential not only to provide civil rights, but also to ensure that Minnesota is open and welcoming to everyone -- regardless of religion, gender, race, national origin or sexual orientation. Would Medtronic's new CEO, who is a Muslim born in Bangladesh, have left General Electric had he not believed that Minnesota was open to people with diverse life experiences?
To sustain their growth, local companies like Target, General Mills, 3M, U.S. Bancorp, Best Buy and Cargill must attract creative professionals from around the world. In his 2003 book, "Rise of the Creative Class," Richard Florida found that tolerance -- openness to diversity regardless of race, religion, ethnicity and sexual orientation -- is one of two key factors in recruiting creative people. He ranked Minneapolis No. 29 on diversity, well below competing cities like Seattle, San Francisco, Portland, New York and Boston.
Local business leaders have been remarkably progressive within their companies, enabling them to sustain their growth and diversify their leadership teams. Passage of this amendment would make it increasingly difficult for Minnesota companies to recruit and retain the talented people required to build global companies -- not just gays, but anyone whose choice is to be part of an open society that rewards performance over social issues.
Our corporate leaders need to speak out forcefully against this amendment, because their companies have the most to lose if it passes. To date, only former CEOs Wheelock Whitney and Marilyn Carlson Nelson have done so, while other corporate leaders have been notably silent.
In North Carolina, the business community failed to speak out against its amendment. CEOs and bank chiefs like Brian Moynihan of Bank of America remained silent, while only Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers warned about the amendment's consequences. Rogers didn't mince words:
"We're going to look back 10 or 20 years from now and think about that amendment [like] the Jim Crow laws [legalizing racial discrimination]. We're competing with people around the world. We've got to be inclusive and open."
In the late 1940s, African-Americans faced discrimination when Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey spoke in defense of racial freedom. In retrospect, how would that era's leaders have felt had they not opposed racial discrimination?
Until the 1967 Supreme Court decision, many states banned interracial marriage. Imagine how families would be affected were those laws still in effect.
In my final years at Medtronic we faced a difficult situation when the Supreme Court ruled that the Boy Scouts could reject gay males as scoutmasters. Since Medtronic Foundation policy prohibited grants to organizations that discriminate, it withheld funds to the Boy Scouts until its policy was changed, causing significant controversy inside the company. As a result, the local Boy Scout chapter amended its policies to be open to all leaders, and our community is better off for that.
Do Minnesotans want to become a parochial haven, or will we be a role model of diversity and quality of life for everyone? Minnesota corporations are leaders on jobs, family-friendly cultures, education, health care and the arts.
Now their leaders need to speak out against the marriage amendment to ensure that Minnesota will continue to be one of the most progressive workplaces in the nation.