After facing public and internal turmoil earlier this year over its response to Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education” legislation — also known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill — The Walt Disney Company is among a handful of Hollywood studios signing an open letter in support of codifying some LGBTQ+ marriage rights into federal law.
Spearheaded by the Human Rights Campaign — who mobilized the effort in just six days — the open letter features 173 signatories, representing more than 5.3 million employees, urging the Senate to pass the Respect for Marriage Act. Known formally as H.R. 8404 in the House and S. 4556 in the Senate, the bill would repeal in its entirety the Defense of Marriage Act, which was passed in 1996. DOMA barred the federal government from acknowleding same gender couples married under state law in more than 1,000 contexts and didn’t require states to legally respect same-sex marriages performed in other states, under the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the Constitution.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in United States v. Windsor struck down the federal recognition element of DOMA in 2013, meaning same-gender couples were no longer excluded from federal recognition when it came to Social Security survivor benefits, equitable tax treatment, the sponsoring of a spouse for citizenship and more. But statements made in Justice Clarence Thomas’ concurring opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned Roe v. Wade, suggested that the court might be looking to overturn rulings like Windsor.
“Americans from all walks of life, across demographics, geographies, and party lines agree that loving, committed couples have the right to be respected and protected under the law,” the letter reads. “As many of us highlighted in our support for Marriage Equality in 2015, a patchwork of inconsistent and discriminatory state marriage laws goes against our company values and makes it harder for us to do business and to recruit and retain top talent.”
While the bill does seek to protect some state and federal marriage rights established through Windsor for pre-existing marriages — in addition to protecting federal recognition of and the enforcment that states recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states — the Respect for Marriage Act would not cover all rights established under the court’s stance in Obergefell v. Hodges. Historically decided in 2015 and noted in the open letter, that ruling determined the fundamental right to marry includes same-sex partnerships, and if overturned, could once again allow states to refuse to issue new marriage licenses to same-sex couples, according to the ACLU.
The letter, which states that support for both “same-sex couples and interracial couples is at an all-time high,” sees Disney and fellow entertainment industry studios and companies like Sony, Comcast NBCUniversal and Apple, publicly align with the pro-LGBTQ+ rights bill that has already made history as “the most pro-LGBTQ vote” in Congress, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, after passing the House with bipartisan support of 267-157.
“Codifying a consistent and inclusive federal standard conferred by the Loving, Windsor, and Obergefell rulings will help to ensure marriage equality, eliminate confusion for employers and enable us to retain and attract talent,” the letter continues. “No person, including same-sex couples and interracial couples protected by this bill, should fear their marriage will not be recognized by the federal government or their employment benefits threatened.”
Disney’s presence among the letter’s signatories is notable after the company faced weeks of internal and external backlash over its response to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which has since become law.
Described as a government censorship bill by the ACLU, it bans classroom discussions in public schools by school officials and third parties related to sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten through third grade, as well as any other grade level where it’s delivered in a manner that’s deemed not “age-appropriate.” It also gives parents broad powers to sue a district over alleged violations for damages and attorney’s fees.
The law became a sore point for Disney in the early months of 2022. That’s when the company began to take heat for donating to representatives who supported and passed HB 1557/SB 1834 through both chambers of Florida’s congress, as well as its silence in terms of any public statements around the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
In early March, Chapek finally responded, telling employees in an internal memo that the company hadn’t publicly stood against the bill as “corporate statements do very little to change outcomes or minds” and are instead “often weaponized by one side or the other to further divide and inflame. Simply put, they can be counterproductive and undermine more effective ways to achieve change.”
In response, the Animation Guild and employees across Disney, from Pixar to its distribution staffers, released public statements condemning the company’s political donations and decision to remain quiet in response to the bill. Soon after, Chapek pledged the company would donate $5 million to the Human Rights Campaign and other LGBTQ+ rights orgs in addition to meeting with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
HRC ultimately turned down the donation following the company’s “regrettable stance by choosing to stay silent amid political attacks against LGBTQ+ families in Florida,” and would refrain from accepting until Disney “build on their public commitment and work with LGBTQ+ advocates to ensure that dangerous proposals, like Florida’s Don’t Say Gay or Trans bill, don’t become dangerous laws.”
Following tense internal meetings with employees, social media statements from its various divisions and news of a virtual and in-person walkout — which eventually took place in Burbank — Chapek, in an employee memo, announced Disney was pausing political donations in Florida pending a review, with the company working out a new framework for political giving and increasing its support for advocacy groups to combat similar legislation in other states.
Disney’s place on the list of signatories supporting the Respect for Marriage Act is among one of the first known public stances the company has taken in support of LGBTQ+ rights since its March controversy.
“I thank the 173 businesses who have taken a stand and joined the fight for LGBTQ+ equality on behalf of their employees and customers, for whom this is entirely personal,” Joni Madison, Human Rights Campaign Interim President, said in a statement. “When workplaces see and celebrate all families, including their LGBTQ+ talent, they ensure everyone can bring their full selves to work and have an opportunity to thrive.”