Why Disney, Viacom and CBS Decided to Support the Same Sex Marriage Fight

Eriq Gardner
Why Disney, Viacom and CBS Decided to Support the Same Sex Marriage Fight

On Tuesday, advocates got the opportunity to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court why laws banning or refusing to recognize same-sex marriage are discriminatory and unconstitutional.

A decision from the nine justices on whether or not to strike down California's Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act won't come for many months. But already there's been an unprecedented stand made by many corporations to support the cause.

Last month, Disney, Viacom and CBS were among the companies in the entertainment industry urging the high court to declare DOMA unconstitutional. Other companies signing onto an amicus brief were Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon.

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It all started on January 26, 2011.

That morning, Massachusetts attorney general Martha Coakley gave a speech at the Boston Chamber of Commerce discussing her efforts to overturn DOMA. (In 2004, the state became the first to recognize same-sex marriages.) At the end of the speech, many of the executives in attendance told Coakley that they were willing to stand with her as she handled an appeal at the First Circuit Court of Appeals.

The following year, all the way on the other coast, another appeal (Golinski v. US OPM) considering the constitutionality of DOMA was being considered at the Ninth Circuit. This became the opportunity for many companies in Hollywood and Silicon Valley to jump aboard what would become the business community's amicus briefs in the same-sex marriage fight.

According to Beth Boland, a partner at Bingham McCutchen, the law firm tasked with writing the appeal, many conference calls and discussions were held in the past year as the Supreme Court readied itself for a historic hearing.

The focus of the amicus brief is how DOMA "impairs employer/employee relationships" by forcing companies to treat employees differently from one another and adds undue compliance burdens on corporations.

Read the full amicus brief here.

For many companies, the logistics of managing a "duel regime" on issues such as tax withholdings, health care coverage and the Family and Medical Leave Act have proven quite burdensome.

Boland says that handling visas for same-sex partners of immigrants has been a "particularly hot issue for entertainment companies."

But to get involved, more was needed than merely an interest in streamlining back office operations. Companies had to firmly believe in the larger cause, she says. "This was an issue that was very fundamental to these businesses," says Boland. "My favorite part of the brief says, 'For many employers, DOMA does violence to the morale of the institution itself.'"

The friend of the court brief continues, "Like other persons, legal and natural, amici are motivated by core principles... Our organizations are engaged in national and international competition—for talent, customers, and business. That competition demands teamwork, and teamwork thrives when the organization minimizes distracting differences, and focuses on a common mission. DOMA’s core mandate— that we single out some of our married colleagues and treat them as a lesser class—upsets this imperative."

On its own website, Viacom has echoed that sentiment.

"Viacom is proud of our diverse and inclusive global workforce that reflects the rich character of our audiences, our partners and our employees," wrote deputy general counsel Daniel Mandil in a blog post last July. "We diligently work towards enhancing our own policies that encourage diversity and equality, and believe that we have a role to play in supporting important efforts to expand these values across the country and around the world."

As for what happens now, Boland won't make predictions.

Thus far, after a few hours of hearing (the Supreme Court will be hearing from the parties both Tuesday and Wednesday), observers have been seeking signs of how the high court will ultimately rule.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, seen as the swing vote, offered up some hesitancy about entering "uncharted waters" on a controversial issue, leading some to believe that the Supreme Court might punt a sweeping ruling on grounds of improper standing. On the other hand, Kennedy expressed concern about the discrimination being faced by children of same-sex couples.

There was also this exchange between Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Charles Cooper, the lawyer defending Proposition 8:

Justice Sotomayor: "Outside of the marriage context, can you think of any other rational basis for a State using sexual orientation as a factor in denying homosexuals benefits or imposing burdens on them? Is there any other rational decision-making that the Government could make? Denying them a job, not granting them benefits of some sort, any other decision?"

Cooper: "Your honor, I cannot."

Twitter: @eriqgardner