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Another travel ban in the US is igniting a backlash

  • California's Democratic Attorney General, Xavier Becerra, announced last month that he is barring state-funded travel to four US states he says discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents.
  • Becerra said the ban sends a message that "there are consequences to discrimination."
  • Whether California's measure will have a long-term impact remains to be seen. Protests against allegedly discriminatory state laws in the past have had only a limited effect.

California's latest shot in the culture war between the states — part of the larger war for business and jobs — appears to have fallen short of the mark. The state's Democratic Attorney General, Xavier Becerra, announced last month that he was barring state-funded travel to four states that he says discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents. But the states are largely shrugging off the order and telling California to mind its own business.

Becerra said the states — Alabama, Kentucky, South Dakota and Texas — all recently passed laws that discriminate based on sexual orientation. The ban comes on top of a ban on travel to four other states — North Carolina, Mississippi, Tennessee and Kansas — enacted by Becerra's predecessor, Kamala Harris, now a U.S. Senator.

"To travel to these states at state expense would mean that we would be using taxpayer dollars to support these states, and we think it would be an offense to all these individuals in America who feel the scourge of discrimination," Becerra said on June 23.

Becerra said the ban, which he claims is mandated under a California law passed last year, sends a message that "there are consequences to discrimination." But he could not quantify what those consequences might be. For example, officials are still trying to figure out if the ban will apply to athletic teams from the state's colleges and universities. The University of California football team is scheduled to take on the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill on September 2, while UCLA is scheduled to travel to Memphis for a game on September 16. In any case, officials in the targeted states were generally unmoved.

"California may be able to stop their state employees, but they can't stop all the businesses that are fleeing over taxation and regulation and relocating to Texas," said John Wittman, a spokesman for Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.

Trigger point

Texas earned California's rebuke because of a law enacted in June that allows child welfare providers to refuse service to children or prospective foster parents based on "sincerely held religious beliefs." Becerra said the law could "potentially disqualify LGBT families from the state's foster and adoption system."

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra
Getty Images
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra

According to Becerra, he was targeting Kentucky over a law signed in March ostensibly to protect religious expression in public schools, saying it could be used to discriminate against LGBT students. Republican Gov. Matt Bevin shot back, contrasting Becerra's opposition to President Donald Trump's ban on travel from six majority Muslim nations to California's expanded travel ban.

"It is fascinating that the very same West Coast liberals who rail against the president's executive order, that protects our nation from foreign terrorists, have now contrived their own travel ban aimed at punishing states who don't fall in lockstep with their far-left political ideology," Bevin said in a statement.

Not everyone in Kentucky was critical. The mayors of Lexington and Louisville, the state's largest cities, wrote letters to Becerra last week asking for exemptions from the ban based on their cities' local LGBT protections. But Becerra declined, since the local ordinances do not override state law. Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said last week that two conventions, which he did not identify, have already pulled out of the city citing concerns over the ban. Fischer said the conventions represented $2 million in potential economic benefits to the city.

Public outcry

Still, whether California's measure will have a long-term impact remains to be seen. Protests against allegedly discriminatory state laws in the past have had only a limited effect.

Dozens of businesses loudly denounced the so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act signed into law by then–Indiana Gov. Mike Pence in 2015. The law allows individuals and businesses to cite their religious beliefs as a defense against discrimination suits. The CEO of Apple, Tim Cook, wrote in a Washington Post Op-Ed column that the law and others like it "rationalize injustice" and said he and the company were taking a stand against them. Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff went further, canceling a major conference in the state and warning that a planned expansion could be in jeopardy.

In the end, the state amended the law to clarify that it does not legalize discrimination. But the law itself remains on the books. Apple continues to do business in the state, and Salesforce.com, satisfied with the amended law, went ahead with its expansion. Benioff announced in May that the company plans to hire another 800 people in the next five years. He said Indianapolis is already the company's biggest location outside its headquarters in San Francisco.

North Carolina, meanwhile, managed to reverse boycotts by the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, the Atlantic Coast Conference and others after the legislature repealed a controversial provision of the law known as HB2, which restricted transgender people's use of public restrooms. But other controversial provisions — including a temporary ban on local antidiscrimination ordinances — remain in effect.

Opponents of North Carolina's HB2 law, limiting bathroom access for transgender people, protest in the gallery above the state's House of Representatives chamber in Raleigh, North Carolina, on December 21, 2016.
Reuters | Jonathan Drake
Opponents of North Carolina's HB2 law, limiting bathroom access for transgender people, protest in the gallery above the state's House of Representatives chamber in Raleigh, North Carolina, on December 21, 2016.

Given the widespread outcry from businesses and business groups over laws they say are impediments to attracting workers, CNBC's annual America's Top States for Business study has been factoring in inclusiveness since 2015. As one of the metrics in our Quality of Life category, we consider each state's antidiscrimination protections. The broader the protections, the more points are awarded.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, five states lack any statewide legal protections against discrimination for individuals who are not disabled: Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina and Texas.

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