Casinos, LGBTs Still Allied in Face of SB 2681 | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Casinos, LGBTs Still Allied in Face of SB 2681

MGM Resorts, which owns the Beau Rivage in Biloxi, will remain committed to workplace equality despite a Mississippi law that many say is discriminatory.

MGM Resorts, which owns the Beau Rivage in Biloxi, will remain committed to workplace equality despite a Mississippi law that many say is discriminatory.

In the early 2000s, when Nevada twice considered a same-sex marriage ban, the big casinos put big bucks and political clout on the line to prevent such a ban.

Today, the Silver State recognizes same-sex civil unions and, even though the ban remains in place, most major casinos will perform same-sex marriages in their famed wedding chapels.

In fact, the biggest players on the Vegas casino scene fully comprehend the buying power of the LGBT dollar: $830 billion, according to a widely cited survey.

To say that Mississippi, where citizens passed a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage in 2004, has been slow to cash in on the economic potential of embracing LGBT people and their money would be an understatement.

Despite being watered down from its original legislative incarnation, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act has only cemented the Hospitality State's reputation as inhospitable to same-sex-loving people and other minorities; many people believed the motivation behind similar measures in other states was to provide legal protection to discriminate against gays.

In early April, a group of small businesses affirmed their nondiscrimination stances with a sticker campaign that tells customers "If you're buying, we're selling."

So where does that leave Mississippi's casinos, particularly the Las Vegas-based operators who, in their promotional material, wear their pro-LGBT bona fides as proudly as many Mississippi businesses have been to display the non-discrimination window decals?

It leaves them walking a fine line. On one hand, Vegas is one of America's most gay-friendly cities. On the other, Mississippi is conservative, and the companies have to be careful not to anger conservative lawmakers in Jackson and customers.

Alan Feldman, executive vice president of global government and industry affairs for MGM Resorts, which owns the Beau Rivage in Biloxi and Gold Strike in Tunica, said in a statement that "although it is our understanding it parallels federal law, we are reviewing the Mississippi legislation to ascertain its consistency with our bedrock commitment to equality."

"MGM Resorts is committed to equality, whether for race, religion, gender, sexual identity or orientation, age, disability, or any other characteristic of our guests, employees, or vendors," he added.

Calls and emails to public-relations department of Caesar's Entertainment, which owns two Mississippi casinos—Grand Biloxi and Tunica Roadhouse Casino & Hotel—were not returned for this story.

In an op-ed for Las Vegas Weekly, freelance journalist Steve Friess said a Caesar's spokesman had trouble locating anyone in the company who knew anything about the Mississippi law; in the most recent legislative session, Caesar's did not have a lobbying presence in Mississippi.

The Mississippi Economic Council worked with industries across the state, including the gaming lobby, to help amend the bill originally introduced in the Mississippi Senate. That version of the bill said no one could "burden a person's right to the exercise of religion," meaning that a business could claim a sort of religious immunity for refusing service to a same-sex or interracial couple citing their Christian beliefs.

The MEC, which functions as the state's chamber of commerce, became more involved when the bill arrived in the House of Representatives, saying through a statement at the time that "MEC opposes efforts that would intentionally or unintentionally prevent Mississippi businesses from implementing and enforcing nondiscrimination policies impacting their customers and employees."

They amended the bill to apply only to government actions; in other words, a local government could not burden a religious group with fees and other regulations that do not apply to non-religious organizations. Still, the tenor of the debate around what was then known as Senate Bill 2681 suggested that some supporters of the bill wanted to use it to keep away LGBT customers and employees.

In fact, as this issue goes to press, the American Family Association is stating on its website that the version of SB 2681 that the governor signed will keep LGBT residents from being able to sue businesses that discriminate against them. "The homosexual lobby is bitter against Governor Bryant's signing of the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which protects Christian business owners against lawsuits from gay activists," the AFA states, even as Bryant and other SB 2681 supporters are denying that the bill can or will be used to limit the rights of LGBT citizens or allow discrimination against them.

The AFA helped start an anti-LGBT-rights group, Alliance Defending Freedom (see jfp.ms/adfmedia), which lauded Bryant for signing the law and denied publicly that the bill would target LGBT rights. At least one founder of the alliance, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, attended Bryant's signing of the bill.

For the out-of-state casinos, appealing to the LGBT customer has become a valuable niche. Both MGM and Caesar's have implemented diversity and inclusion and policies specifically for LGBT customers and employees. MGM says it was the first company in the gaming industry to establish a formal diversity and inclusion initiative in the early 2000s, around the time Nevada was banning same-sex marriage.

The Washington D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay-rights group that became active here as SB 2681 snaked through the Mississippi Legislature, has also given the companies high marks for their LGBT-friendly employment policies.

In HRC's annual Corporate Equality Index, a measurement of a company's LGBT workplace policies, MGM and Caesar's have historically gotten high marks. For a stretch, Caesar's had achieved a perfect score CEI rating for six consecutive years; MGM won perfect ration twice in a row, in 2012 and 2013.

These two companies are the biggest and most influential players in Mississippi's $2.13 billion gaming industry, made up of 30 casinos and employees approximately 25,000 people. Company-wide, for the year ending Dec. 31, 2013, MGM made profits of $3.5 billion revenues of $9.8 billion. In the same period, Caesar's had revenues of $8.5 billion and profits of $2.9 billion.

In the meantime, HRC, whose Las Vegas chapter held a gala May 17 at the Wynn Las Vegas, says the organization will work with the casinos to make sure they remain LGBT-friendly under Mississippi's RFRA law.

Deena Fidas, who manages HRC's workplace equality program, said of Caesar's and MGM Resorts: We will continue to work with them on the CEI, to ensure their employees work in a welcoming place free of discrimination—hundreds of companies operate in states with laws that fail to protect the LGBT community and they still set their own standards of fairness and inclusion in the workplace."

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